February 1, 2010

Assembly website called “antiquated”

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Maryland State House is the oldest in the nation in continuous legislative use, and to some users, the legislature’s website looks like it’s been around since the dawn of the Internet as well.

“It’s an antiquated website,” said Sen. Mike Lenett, a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of the drivers behind an open government push this year. “The General Assembly website is not user-friendly by any means.”

Though there’s been a lot of talk about putting more information on the General Assembly’s Web site, there’s been less focus on the site itself. The site already contains a lot of useful data, but it’s often hard for newbies to find.

“If it’s easier to find where you can pay a parking ticket on a [government] Web site than it is to find the activities of the General Assembly, that reflects their priorities,” said Ryan O’Donnell of Common Cause Maryland, one of the lead groups pressing for reform this year.

The homepage for the General Assembly looks pretty much as it did in the late 1990s. It displays none of the latest bells and whistles seen on many governmental websites, such as the one for Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“It’s been the same design for a while,” said Michael Gaudiello, the chief technology officer for the legislature. And he said there are no plans to redesign it any time soon.

“I’m assuming at some point we’ll do that,” Gaudiello said.

The current site is “bill-centric,” he explained. It’s a place where “you can access everything on [a given] bill. We think the public is best served on a bill-by-bill perspective.”

The search engine on the site is “a standard Google search appliance,” and limited to searching for information about legislation, not scouring the entire site.

Punch in “spending affordability,” for instance, and no results come up. That’s true, even though the site does include fiscal briefings and decision documents for the legislative committee that recommends spending targets to the governor.

“We’re not doing as much with the documents,” Gaudiello agreed, though the IT shop did recently standardize the display.

To find the spending affordability documents a user must click on a category called “Everything Else,” then click one of the six subject lines called “Postings from Committees, Commissions, Task Forces and Study Groups.”

This takes you to a list of 13 current committees, where you can find “Spending Affordability Committee.” There you’ll find the briefings and reports from the past nine years.

“Intuitive is not a word you would use to describe the website,” Ryan O’Donnell said.

Audio of House and Senate sessions is easier to find. Not only can you listen to the daily sessions of the both chambers live, but you can also find recorded sessions stretching back a decade.

But you’d better be able to recognize the voices or district numbers of the 47 senators and 141 delegates, because Senate and House rules prohibit the use of a member’s name.

On the floor, under a long-standing rule designed to preserve civil discourse, lawmakers are referred to by their committee titles, their districts or home towns – “the senator from the capital city,” as Senate President Mike Miller will call Sen. John Astle of Annapolis, or “the gentlelady from Howard County,” as Speaker Michael Busch will refer to Del. Gail Bates.

And you need to download RealPlayer as well, since Windows Media Player and iTunes software on a Mac won’t let you tune into the Assembly action.

“We’ve been standardized with RealPlayer,” Gaudiello said, which he points out is a free download.

Open government advocates also want the legislature to drop the $800 annual charge to get real-time access to the daily agendas and proceedings of the House and Senate, including amendments to bills. Only about 100 to 125 businesses, lobbyists and organizations subscribe, Gaudiello said, generating about $80,000 to $100,000 a year.

Those proposed reforms are part of the Maryland Open Government Act, which would require Webcasts of committee hearings, along with online registry for witnesses, records of committee votes and notice of the order in which bills will be heard.

This real-time data is available on public State House computers and the legislators’ laptops, but Gaudiello said it could be a problem to make it widely-available on the Internet, since “it puts some strain on the servers.”