By Becca Heller
To better understand the state’s challenges to political transparency, the OpenGov Foundation and MarylandReporter.com teamed up to lead a small focus group last Thursday to analyze the access point to all of Maryland’s State House information -- the state legislative website.
The conclusion? Transparency in Maryland has a long way to go.
Seamus Kraft, OpenGov executive director and leader of the focus group, said OpenGov plans to be a big part of the journey. The OpenGov Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to developing technology to expand political transparency and make information more accessible.
“We’re going to build our own [website],” Kraft explained. “Starting with the good data and architecture of today’s legislative resources, we’re hoping to create a modern place for Marylanders to access that information and put it to work for them. We’re going to be custom developing a larger infrastructure for this information based on the feedback we get from users.”
Focus group concerned about search function, vote tracking capability
During the course of an hour, Kraft listened to the concerns of the focus group as they discussed the current state website. Most participants in the group were legislative insiders,
including four long-time legislative assistants and three staff mebers of MarylandReporter.com. In keeping with the usual practice in focus groups to encourage open discussion, the legislative participants are not being identified by name.
The poorly functioning search engine was one of the most discussed concerns.
“If you type in the terms ‘gun control’, you aren’t going to find the bill you’re looking for because the title of the bill is the Firearm Safety Act of 2013,” explained one legislative staffer. “The way the search engine works, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for in order to find it.”
Another topic of discussion was the fragmented infrastructure of the site, which lists votes by individual bills, rather than by legislators. There is no way to track comprehensive voting records for each legislator.
“All the emails we get from constituents say: I’m gonna watch how you’re voting,” said another longtime legislative aide. “And I just think: Good luck, buddy! Good luck, tracking that.”
Other concerns that surfaced regarding the site included issues of data inconsistency and timeliness of political updates.
Some users praise improvements on the legislative website
Users not part of the focus group did not express the same frustration with the website, however. Grace Kubofcik, former president of the League of Women Voters of Howard County, said she liked the site makeover, which launched in December.
“I have to tell you I was more than pleasantly surprised because once I started to use the website, I found it to be very user-friendly,” said Kubofcik, who was not part of the focus group. “Very easy to navigate. I loved the fact that it was extremely simple for me to track bills.”
Kubofcik said that she wished bill fiscal notes came in earlier, but for the most part, she was satisfied and impressed by the site. Fiscal analysis is usually not available till the day before a hearing on a bill, a longstanding practice unrelated to the website.
Roy Meyers, a political science professor who teaches government budgeting at University of Maryland Baltimore County, also gave some positive feedback, but shared many of the same criticisms with the focus group. Meyers said he was glad the new site did away with charging for “just in time” information -- which gave the most up-to-date legislative information only to paid subscribers.
But he also pointed out the “delays in voting records on second and especially third reading, which seem to get longer the closer it is to Sine Die.”
That frequent complaint has less to do with the website than the policies of the state Senate and House of Delegates. Senators and delegates have until the end of the business day to record or change their electronic votes in the case of a mistake or malfunction; the final tally is usually not processed till the next day.
‘They don’t know what we need’
Everyone in the focus group agreed that the website was a far cry from being transparent, and as the discussion drew to a close, participants explored the factors that have impacted the site’s usability.
“I think part of the problem is that people are brought in to design the site because they went to college and have a degree, but they don’t have any insight into the legislative world,” said a third legislative staffer. “They don’t know what it is that we need.”
Others point to a resistance to change.
“It’s the way it’s always been done; there’s a resistance to change. There’s an insular mentality, coupled with fear,” said a staffer. “You’ve got to keep in mind, we’re dealing with a mentality where we still do our timesheets on paper.”
There is more information on the legislative website then there has been in the past. For instance, committee votes began being posted three years ago, but they are simply scanned PDFs of voting sheets tallied by hand, so they are not searchable or easily transformed to other formats.
OpenGov’s new website will address concerns of focus group
Regardless of the cause, OpenGov officials are determined to circumvent the problems by creating their own version -- much like they did with marylandcode.org -- with the users as their No. 1 priority.
“I’m sitting here listening to the gripes that you guys have, and it’s already going through my head what a legislative page should look like,” said OpenGov developer Chris Birk, who also sat in on the focus group.
Kraft and Birk explained that crafting a new website from scratch would be a huge undertaking, but the OpenGov foundation believes that freedom of information is critically important to democracy.
“Everybody in this country and in the state of Maryland has a right to this information,” said Kraft. “It’s hard to put the user first with government data and technology. That’s why we’re contributing our time and our tech-savvy - to make it easier for public servants and citizens to access what they want and use it how they want. Period.”
Looking for more focus group participants
In partnership with OpenGov, MarylandReporter.com will put together another focus group on the legislative website in June. The OpenGov folks would like to hear from other active users of the website, including committee staff and lobbyists. If you would like to participate, send an email to Len@MarylandReporter.com. No date or time has been selected.