Sunday, June 13, 2010

Capitol website should keep pace with transparency innovations

I've said before the Texas Legislature's web presence is an extraordinary boon to democratic input, allowing average citizens to access hearing videos and bill records from outside Austin and giving the public nearly the level of tracking tools available to the professional lobby.

But technology changes quickly and what was cutting edge two years ago today frequently seems rather pedestrian today, and so it is for me with the Texas capitol website (

Lately I've been working on a project related to City of Austin water rates, and have had the opportunity to extensively use the "on demand" functions for retrieving and viewing council meeting video and materials related to the agenda. The system really is quite extraordinary and in particular provides two tools that make public policy research a lot simpler: Basic backup materials are posted online for each agenda item and video may be accessed item by item so you don't have to fast-forward through hours of unrelated material searching for what you need. Right now the best that can be done is subscribe to the pay-service Telicon, which pays note-takers to record the time items come up in notes from committee hearings so you can jump to that time on the video. In Austin's set-up, the public has even easier access to video from hearings than the best-connected lobbyist at the Lege. Installing similar capacity for the capitol website would be an amazingly useful upgrade and a big time saver for everyone involved - even legislators and staff themselves.

Transparency on the web is one of the things the Texas Legislature generally has done right. You might not like the decisions they make, but we all get to see them made in more or less real time. Whether Texas is "good" on transparency, though, is a relative thing, and clearly technology will continue to provide new ways to make information available to the public. I'd love to see Texas stay ahead of the curve and improve the capitol website along the lines of Austin's upgrades.


Pam said...

I like the capitol website a lot also. But be careful what you wish for. The city of San Antonio had some pretty good information available on their website, such as map downloads and building permits, but then they redid the site, and it all went missing.

Scott Stevens said...

Having done legislative research, I know first hand how tedious it is to watch hours of video only to miss the rocket-speed waiver of reading of a bill that was there instead of the debate you thought you would see.

Having to watch hours and hours and then to re-watch because you missed something that happens almost as fast as the blink of an eye was very painful.

Having indexed videos would save much of my time and much time on the state's servers.

Scott Stevens