Digital Transformation in the Legislative Branch: An interview with Mark Stodder and Luís Kimaid

Xcential recently partnered with Bússola Tech to organize a discussion between U.S. Representative Jim McGovern and Brazilian Senator Antônio Anastasia. Both spoke on their country’s needs, challenges faced during the pandemic, and how technology has enabled legislatures to continue to work properly during these challenging times. 

“We need to find ways to keep the government running and responsive to constituents in good times and bad. Technology gave us the opportunity to continue to operate in the middle of this pandemic,” said Rep. McGovern. “It has also provided a way to ensure transparency and allow people to remain in touch with their elected officials.”

“With the use of technology, congress is much more open, much more democratic, much more participatory,” Senator Anastasia agreed, “Which is very good, so that we can get it right, clearly identify the various trends in society, and make decisions in the most just and convergent way possible.”

In the conversation below, Xcential President Mark Stodder and Bússola Tech CEO Luís Kimaid add further context to the discussion of digital transformation in legislative processes.

Luís Kimaid:

Mark, Xcential talks a lot about data standards and the benefits of a “data-first” approach to legislative and regulatory processes. You even named your newsletter Data First. Can you describe what that means?

Mark Stodder:

Simply put, laws and regulations work best when we draft and manage them as data first. Legislative and regulatory documents have well defined, hierarchical structures. Titles, chapters, sections, and enacting language can be digitally identified as standardized data. If we create legislative and regulatory documents as data first, we can automate formatting and other downstream tasks and allow drafters to focus on the substance.

The U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Government Publishing Office, the U.K. Parliament, and many other national, state, and provincial legislatures have begun managing legislation as data first, using open-source data standards. Regulatory agencies, too, are adopting these data standards to manage the regulations they draft, propose, compile, and publish.

By managing legislative and regulatory materials as data first, governments can more efficiently draft and share such documents, automatically connect compilations maintained by different offices or agencies, and deliver vastly greater public transparency. 

Open-source data standards support digital tools and also avoid the danger of vendor lock-in. Xcential helped to develop open-source data standards, including Akoma Ntoso and the U.S. Legislative Markup (USLM), and we encourage all governments and vendors to use them.

Once laws and regulations are created and managed as data first – and not as piles of paper or word processing files – new digital tools can make the process of lawmaking more efficient, more error free and more transparent. “Data first” is where the law- and rule-making world is headed. 

Luís, we have seen increasing modernization in government institutions in the last few decades, particularly in the executive branch. Bússola Tech advocates the legislative branch should be leading this movement. What are the steps for a digital-ready legislative house?

Luís Kimaid:

Bússola Tech has identified that legislative digital transformation has three different dimensions. The first dimension is the digitalisation of the internal processes, the second dimension is the implementation of transparency solutions and the third dimension focuses on the participation applied to the legislative process. The house must be aware of its previous digital capabilities and its goals as an institution. Although it’s important for colleagues to learn what is happening in other legislative houses around the globe, at this stage it is important for the house to focus on its own challenges and capabilities.

Specifically about the digitalisation of the administrative and legislative processes, starting with the simple conversion of paper documents and paper generating processes into a digital process. Even old legislative documents can be made useful for members and for civil servants. In this regard, the Hellenic Parliament is doing a remarkable job in making old documents useful through the usage of optical character recognition and a crowdsourcing strategy.

When we talk specifically about the legislative process, we need to consider a few aspects before moving forward, such as compliance with the internal rules and the avoidance of disturbing the internal political dynamics. The digitalisation of the legislative process should follow the guidelines defined in the digital transformation strategy, but partitioned into different stages and moments. A general advice is not to try to implement a solution all at once.

Following the implementation of a digital legislative process end-to-end, the House will increase its effectiveness in regard to the capacity of public servants, staff and members to make the best usage of legislative information.

The solutions chosen for the project must be designed for the legislative process. It’s not uncommon to hear colleagues from legislatures around the globe sharing the distortions and ineffectiveness after the implementation of unappropriated solutions. Solutions designed for the executive power or for the private sector shouldn’t be used for this purpose, only in supporting features, like a videoconference tool, certification platforms and cloud services.

Xcential is an outstanding example to explain it. Let’s think for a moment in a large piece of legislation with hundreds when not thousands of amendments to the original proposal. An amendment can be as complex as to add new texts into the proposal, but also just to remove a comma from the original text. Yet some unappropriated systems being used in the committees rely on the usage of PDFs for both the original text, but also for the amendments. Imagine the Secretary General of the Board team organising countless PDFs with amendments. Although legislatures change from each State, Province, Country or Region, there are enough commonalities and demands when we talk about digital transformation. Xcential understood a major demand common to all legislatures and provided an effective solution for it.

What would you say is the largest challenge in getting drafting offices, and their IT teams, bought into the idea of modernizing their legislative or regulatory processes?

Mark Stodder:

One of the largest challenges is the perception that the project will be a mammoth undertaking and the drafting office will be “locked in” with one vendor. The old way of modernizing complex legislative systems was to replace all of the components at once, with custom-built applications, about every 10 years. A single modernization project could require five years or more, enormous expense and long waits before anything of value goes into production. 

Fortunately, that is no longer the only option available. Modern, web-based drafting applications that use standard web technologies and componentized, plug-in architecture, coupled with open data standards, can be applied to modernization projects in a step-by-step manner. Projects can start small, with a proof-of-concept, then an “MVP” – say, modernizing the process of drafting and publishing just a certain set of legislative documents – and gradually moving one part of the legislative process forward at a time. This provides drafting offices valuable “deliverables” along the way, instead of a long wait for that “big bang” arrival of modern tools at the end. With standardization of data and technologies, this also allows governments to take a best-of-breed approach to vendor selection, instead of having to rely on one big IT provider to do it all.

Quick commercial message: Xcential’s LegisPro follows this approach. It’s built on a standard web tech stack, and creates and manages legislative documents using nonproprietary open data models such as Akoma Ntoso. Our goal – which is going to sound a little strange – is to be easily replaceable for governments. Once you’ve moved to an open standard for your data structure, applications such as your bill drafting platform or legislative workflow application can be swapped out more easily as technologies more forward and better tools surface. You don’t have to go through the expensive upheaval of changing your whole underlying database. It’s a way to future proof your process.

And Luís, what are the other dimensions considered in digital transformation in the legislative?

Luís Kimaid:

The second dimension is the transparency about the legislative process. Transparency solutions are very useful for internal users in the House, such as staff, members and civil servants. Members and staff should be able to easily find information for the full exercise of their mandates. A very interesting solution has been developed by the Brazilian House of Representatives, the Infoleg App. Although it’s open to the public, it’s widely used by internal users in the House and laid the ground for the implementation of the remote deliberation system in 2020.

Once the house digitalisation moves forward and the data governance supports it, as Mark explains in this article, the implementation of an open data platform may answer for more complex information in the legislative process, making it possible for the internal users to elaborate their strategy based on a data based lawmaking. Also, the private sector and civil society organisations will be able to usefully access the legislative data.

It’s of the utmost importance to understand the audience to which the solution is intended. Even though the solution is focused in one area of the House, it must be comprehensible for other internal users. For example, it is not uncommon for the Clerk’s office to use certain technical language the IT team won’t understand, or the structure doesn’t make sense.  The strategy must focus in plain language and clear web page structure.

The third dimension relies on the implementation of the first two dimensions to be effectively implemented. It’s the participation in the legislative process. Imagine for a moment the amount of information about the past and ongoing proposals, committee meetings and hearing, debates and votes. As a basic value, the legislative house must not only allow participation, but also promote it. To be effective, the participation solution relies both on the technical expertise, but also a deep understanding of the legislative process, so it can be integrated. Two formidable examples are the e-participation platforms in the Brazilian Senate House, the e-cidadania and the “Iniciativa legislativa dos cidadãos” from the National Assembly of Portugal.

The digital transformation process in our legislatures is a challenging task and it requires the leadership of our civil servants and members. We firmly believe the legislative digital transformation requires not only the cooperation between these actors, but also the collaboration in creating a digital-ready legislature. At Bússola Tech we act in the effort for the creation and strengthening of a community for the digital transformation in the legislative globally, through the sharing of expertise from legislatures at the national and subnational level, inter-parliamentary organisations, such as the Interparliamentary Union and its thematics and regional Hubs, Parlamericas, the Pan African Parliament, the European Parliament and the private entrepreneurs.

Mark, how have digital drafting tools been transformative in the time of COVID?

Mark Stodder:

For legislative offices that hadn’t already made the transition to a more digital, data-first approach, it’s been a really tough year.  The legislative drafting and amending process has long relied on paper as the data format, file folders as the content management system and colored pencils as the version control application. This doesn’t work when your drafting team is suddenly having to work from their kitchen tables.

We’ve seen some quick and temporary solutions, with more than a few drafting offices relying on putting PDF sticky notes to remarkable new uses. Others have had to rely on old remote desktop applications and other tape-and-glue fixes.

The experience has shown many offices who thought they were fully digital…actually weren’t so much. Using platforms such as Word that aren’t truly web-based or able to handle the innate complexities of the legislative process has been a very big hurdle. Pure online applications such as a Google Docs, while offering wonderful collaborative tools, fail pretty quickly when confronted by a 300-page bill that amends 100 different sections of your code.

So those who have been on a more modern footing have fared much better. Those who have a data-first approach in place have been able to work through this remotely, while still having access to all the important features of their drafting platform: automation that eliminates the drudgery, collaborative drafting, tools for ensuring greater accuracy and processes that enhance transparency and public access to lawmaking – something more important than ever today.

Luís Kimaid:

What are some examples of modern drafting tools making the process of lawmaking more efficient, more error free, and more transparent?

One example that always catches legislative drafters’ attention is automated amendment generation. This is made possible by that modern data-first approach – when you draft legislation and regulations natively as data (in XML, in the open standard format, behind the scenes). 

As you know, with most legacy systems, amending a bill, law, or regulation is a complex and manual process. Typically, legislative and regulatory professionals must draft an amendment as a separate document. The amendment must describe each change to existing law or a bill in precise detail. As an amendment moves through the legislative or regulatory process, the text may be altered multiple times – again, a very manual process, involving a lot of complicated rekeying. If the amendment is approved, it is manually entered – or “engrossed” – into the original document – revising the bill, the law or the regulation. Now, in real life, we know that the amending process can be multiplied ten times or more on a single bill (a recent bill in Congress attracted more than 400 amendments). With older systems this process is full of opportunities for error, and it can be extremely time consuming – just when time pressures and deadlines are most intense.

The most modern drafting offices now can work in a way that flips this process around. With the data-first approach, they can draft those amendments in context, marking up the bill, regulation or law in redlining “track changes” style. The amending document can then be generated automatically, right from those changes. Once an amendment is approved, engrossment becomes a matter of accepting the changes, just like you’d do in a Word document. In one U.S. state we work with, the switch to this approach eliminated the need for the drafting staff to work overnight during session, manually engrossing the day’s floor amendments.

We’re seeing an important knock-on effect from all of this: increased transparency. Because those amendments, and the underlying bill or law or regulation are in the machine readable, standard XML data format, modern software applications can do their magic. Comparison programs can be run that provide visualizations of even the most granular changes between drafts of legislation. Impact programs can show precisely how bills or amendments will change specific parts of the law. Those are just a couple of examples of what’s possible now that the laws and regulations are maintained in these standard data structures. It’s exciting to see.

Sometimes, legislative houses argue that their traditions don’t allow for their digital transformation. Luís, as Bússola Tech’s CEO, what is your view about it?

Luís Kimaid:

The modernisation of a legislative institution must be conscious about the historical tradition the legislative process carries. For members and for civil servants the modernization effort can be an opportunity to understand the institution’s most important values and how they are represented in the legislative process. Let’s say for example the members must be recognised by the Chair to cast their votes orally, because at one point in time this action represented parliamentary transparency and openness. Thus the question is: how can we modernise the legislative institution, integrating historical tradition with the effectiveness of a digital transformation strategy?

Legislative houses are cautious about process change, due the risk-averse nature of the institution. However, there are interesting opportunities for modernisation in the internal processes that do not offend the institution’s traditions and can improve the civil servants, staff and members’ daily lives. At Bússola Tech, we firmly believe the expertise from civil servants from the Clerk’s office and from IT Teams can be added by the historical record from other legislatures’ implementations brought by the private entrepreneurs.

At Bússola Tech we have seen time and again the eagerness of civil servants in different countries to help the legislative institution to be digital-ready. Here in Bússola we reunite a growing and open global online repository of experiences of public servants and parliaments in terms of digital legislative transformation, through series, webinars, and articles. By strengthening this community of civil servants globally, we believe more legislative houses can learn and share their expertise, their successes and failures. We have seen in our daily work how important it is for a legislature to have the network of support, both at their first steps, but also for more mature digital legislatures. In 2020, the necessity for a rapid response for the continuity of the legislative businesses remotely showed that our legislatures share many common challenges that can be addressed by the strengthening of the channels of collaboration.

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