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Opening up the World's Legislative Bodies: The Global Game

BY David Eaves | Wednesday, September 5 2012

The last couple of years has seen the emergence of a number of websites used to monitor state and federal legislative activity. In a recent count by TechPresident we found over 75 such parliamentary monitoring sites. While many have not found their footing, failed to take off, or never found funds to sustain themselves, sites like TheyWorkForYou in the UK, OpenCongress in the US, in Canada and ProDemos in the Netherlands have all become real successes in their countries, generating significant traffic.

The success of these sties suggests that, under certain conditions, there is an appetite for better access to legislative bodies through open data. Given the exciting developments that have taken place in this space over the last few years it can be easy to forget that the legislative bodies themselves have a huge influence over what is possible. Through licensing and making data available they can dramatically speed up — or slow down — the pace of innovation around online engagement with legislative bodies.&nbsp

Sadly, legislative bodies have not always been interested in enabling innovation in this space. As reported on TechPresident, the Sunlight Foundation and other advocates has met at best foot dragging and at worst resistance from the U.S. Congress when it comes to making the Library of Congress' THOMAS legislative information system directly accessible to bulk downloads. Indeed in many countries where monitoring sites are successes, this has happened despite, not because of parliamentary cooperation. For many other monitoring sites, many records must be scraped off official sites and organized. 

These scrapers can be fragile. I know of one individual who would copy the videos from the Canadian House of Commons which - while protected by Crown Copyright - can still be copied, distributed and reused under certain conditions. While he was operating within the law, House of Commons staffers would regularly alter their site in a manner that suggested no benefit other than to disrupt his scrapers. This means that precious resources must be spent maintaining and supporting scrapers and the gathering of information, rather than on innovating, design or public engagement. 

It is in that context that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and several partners have launched a Declaration on Parliamentary Openness that seeks, among other things, to make parliamentary information more transparent, accessible and available in bulk online. According to NDI, over 70 organizations in 50 countries, mostly transparency groups, have signed the declaration. Sadly, there are no parliaments or legislative bodies on the list.

This approach seems doubly timely since the Open Government Partnership tends to deal with the executive in many governments, meaning that parliamentary bodies are relatively ignored by that process. Having a declaration that focuses on legislatures could be helpful to ensure that the global debate on transparency doesn't get mired down in the executive branches of participating countries.  

But how effective will such a declaration be? Hard to tell. My suspicion is that such a global partnership of organizations seeking legislative transparency likely has the best hope of success among governments that already have a strong streak of transparency to them, such as Sweden and Norway. They may also find traction among emerging democracies where outdated and opaque processes have not become hallowed "traditions" and where notions of transparency and accountability have real meaning to both the public at large and to elected officials. Countries like Chile or Brazil might step forward to be leaders here. Some of these regions in the world tend to also seek international accreditation in the hopes of demonstrating achievement or effectiveness. That could make this a powerful tool for transparency groups in those countries, especially if parliaments in different countries compete to be more open.

The idea behind this declaration may also gain traction among legislators at the provincial and regional levels. More local politicians are often very interested in international standards as a way to build prestige, tend to be more pragmatic and might have more desire to find ways to engage constituents. While they often have fewer resources, these smaller legislatures can also be more nimble. Indeed, this declaration, if it was adopted by regional, provincial and local legislatures in several countries around the world, could have a real impact in shifting the debate.

But I think this campaign will have little impact in many of the more traditional Western democracies, particularly at the national level in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Here, despite some progress, thinking about sharing information is dominated more often by paper binders than by APIs and downloads. In addition, the siren sound of international praise means less institutions in these countries, which often see no need to seek external validation to enhance their legitimacy. I very much hope I am wrong with this analysis, but at the moment, I think more forward thinking is likely to come from places with more to prove and a greater willing to revisit first principles since so many processes are new or emerging.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.