Foundation aims to improve Maryland legislative website

May 23, 2013 at 10:18 pm

By Becca Heller

Becca@MarylandReporter.com

Home page of the legislature's website.

Home page of the legislature’s website.

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,

Old General Assembly website.

The old General Assembly website

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.

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  • Angie Boyter

    This is a wonderful project. I am only an occasional user of the website, but as an interested citizen, I appreciate efforts to make it more useful. One of the most important parts of a technical project manager’s job is to understand the customer’s needs & how the product will be used. Certainly the examples you mention in your article—searching with “gun” rather than “firearm” and seeing a legislator’s entire voting record—are obvious features that should be on the site. I think the shortcomings are mostly accidental rather than deliberate, but, as the corollary to Clarke’s Law says, “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

  • hungrypirana

    The foundation’s goals are laudable.

    I still prefer Lexis-Nexus’ free MD code service because I get too many irrelevant returns when searching OpenGov’s MD Code. OpenGov’s site has no advanced search capacity while Lexis-Nexis has very good advanced search.

    And I really think OpenGov may spin its wheels for years if it places too much emphasis on building it’s resources using the State’s open-source data, because those data suffer from a number of quality and completeness deficiencies. For instance: (1) State payments data is demonstrably incomplete and it’s not reconciled with anything such as the financial statements, and has no apparent reconciliation controls designed for quality control; (2) StateStat is incomplete because it measures the governor’s pet priorities, StateStat’s drill-down data don’t readily support the top level statistics and must be reconstructed.

    The State really must be more committed to improve quality and completeness of data it makes available before OpenGov can get any meaningful traction. One area the state could vastly improve is to translate performance measurement system nested within its annual budget justifications into a more prominent place in the public domain. Come to think of it, that would be a good project for OpenGov.

  • Bill

    Two things strike me in this article. First, that although the new site we just spent an indeterminate amount of tax dollars developing and deploying is better than the ridiculous thing it replaced, it’s still so horrible that another site must created so you can actually find what you want. While this site was being developed I read comments by a legislator involved in the process – and although I have been in the technology industry for 30 years I could not make any sense over her pseudo-technical statements. At that point I figured the new site was still going to have problems.

    Second is the quote from the legislative aid: “And I just think: Good luck, buddy! Good luck, tracking that.” The disdain shown for the public here is sickening, and the fact that this is a known need in the web site and the new version still does not support it is worse.

    Your state government ladies and gentlemen. Hopefully OpenGov can fix the site, even if it cannot fix the legislative aids.

    • Becca Heller

      As the writer of this article, I just want to clarify something which was not readily apparent in the plain text — the legislative aid who said “Good luck, buddy” said it to point out, sarcastically, how poorly designed the legislative site was. It was not said in earnest and the aid did not have any distain for the public; rather she spends much of her day helping people maneuver the site to find what they need.

  • cwals99

    Well, Open Government seems to not have had any of the public involved in what is supposed to be a public service. Citizens Oversight Maryland has made comments about Open Government and yet I am not part of the focus group. You cannot improve a system when the same people involved in creating the system and legislators are the ones giving input! Accessing information on the status of bills is important and this site desperately needs upgrading in that regard…it is looking better, but this is the question—–WHY DO MARYLAND CITIZENS NOT ENGAGE IN POLITICS OR EDUCATE THEMSELVES ON ISSUES? THEY ARE NOT ENGAGED IN THE POLITICAL PROCESS.

    This site should be community specific. When I am prompted to enter my address or zipcode I go to a page with the elected officials most people already know and then I go nowhere. I should be able to click on Joan Carter Conway and see the bills she sponsored, how she voted on all this year’s bills with an ability to look historically according to category. I should be able to see her work as head of a committee.

    I have spoken to the most important issue in regards Open Government……outside the fact that Open Meetings are not actually open in most cases…..and that is a simplified means of checking the calendar for committee and public meetings. THAT IS THE KEY TO GETTING PEOPLE OUT. If you go to any large institution….say Johns Hopkins you will see a calendar by date and by topic. So, if you look at May 31 you will see all the activity at the institution on that day regardless of department. THAT IS THE PRIORITY BUT I DO NOT HEAR ANY CONVERSATION. Once that calendar is built then it is important to educate people as to its existence. So, you set up programs in community centers and libraries that have librarians et al scheduling classes on accessing this information and actually organize a trip to a meeting. THIS IS BASIC POLITICAL EDUCATION THAT DOES NOT EXIST.

    If you use any of the State of Maryland sites you see all kinds of examples of information to be accessed but when you come to a webpage there is nothing there beyond the Home Page. It goes nowhere, just like the page with elected officials. The entire thing looks as though it wants to give the impression that Maryland is transparent but with absolutely no transparency. If you go to Anthony Brown and his Health Initiative page, or the Education initiative page…..etc it fails to inform beyond the usual sound bites.

    HERE IS AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE ALREADY DEVELOPED:

    About OpenCongress

    OpenCongress brings together official government data with news
    coverage, blog posts, public comments, and more to give you the real
    story behind what’s happening in Congress. Small groups of political
    insiders and lobbyists already know what’s really going on in Congress.
    Now, everyone can be an insider.

    THIS IS WHAT WE NEED FOR A STARTING POINT TOWARDS OPEN GOVERNMENT!