Technology and Local Law

law and technology, LegisWeb by Xcential

Municipal clerks are tasked to secure the law (ordinances, rules, and resolutions). City and town attorneys are asked to change laws by drafting ordinances and amendments with input from the clerk.

Securing the law and changing the law are serious responsibilities. These responsibilities are part of a legal and historical tradition to secure peace and prosperity.

The responsibilities are hundreds of years old.

Modern technology is maybe 40 years old. But in 40 years, technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives. Those include changes to how we secure and change local law. 

The rate of change will continue to increase (just look at your zoning ordinances).

Paper / Vellum / Computer Files

Securing the law may have started with stone and paper, but moved to vellum and vaults a thousand years ago. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Victoria Tower in London, you can see millions of records of legal and historical significance.

A common belief today is that digital storage will outlast vellum. And that hard-drives and the cloud will outlast the vault. But we are not there, not yet.

Hard-drives rely on proprietary interfaces to access the data. Those interfaces have come and gone in the last 40 years. There is no guarantee that your 10-year-old hard-drive full of family photos is accessible today. Technical formats change fast, especially when we consider the historical requirements of the survivability for law.

Technology is changing quickly and has no regard for higher-level interests like historical preservation.

Software suppliers come and go as well; and they constantly change how they write code. In 2023, most software is not written the same way as it was in 1999 and with the rise of AI, this is beginning to change again at a fundamental level. 

The statistics on software companies are not good either (for securing records). On average 90% of software startups fail within the first 10 years, that means they get customers and then eventually go out of business or get absorbed by a larger company.

So how do we truly secure our local laws? How do we trace change over time that tells the story of our local community?

Open Standards

The US federal government, several US states, and international bodies like the UN have been working on this problem.  It applies at the city, town, and county level as well. 

There is good news.

Open standards unlock the potential to move beyond individual company interests to create value across industries. For example, open standards moved networking from the control of a few companies in 1989 (DEC, Novell, IBM, 3Com) to an open world-wide-web in 1992. Without these open standards, the internet would not have existed as we know it today.

For clerks and attorneys, terms like the names of open standards like “U.S. Legislative Markup” (USLM) and “Akoma Ntoso” or “LegalDocML” sound like nonsense. But they are important to recovering what we have lost by going digital. These standards create:

  • Common read formats. This means that laws stored in these formats will be readable by software in the future, regardless of changes to software or vendors.
  • Meaningful connections. These standards make it easier to search across connected data repositories, apply comparisons, and better understand the impact of changes to local law.
  • Eliminate proprietary formats and reliance on individual software vendors. This gives control back to the citizens, instead of commercial interests and is necessary for future innovation.

These open standards create the kind of survivability that we achieved with vellum and vaults. And they free us from being held captive by individual software vendors.

First Principles vs Technology Features

We can amend and secure our local law in a better way. This starts with first principles, not with features to improve workflows. 

Here are some fundamental principles we believe in:

  • Accessibility – Our laws and recent changes should be easily accessible by citizens
  • Clarity – Citizens should be able to read and understand our laws
  • Precision – The law should read as intended and have few unintended consequences
  • Traceability – Citizens, now and in the future, should know who, when and why specific laws and amendments were enacted (part of our history)
  • Survivability – Our codes should be readable today and into the future

These principals are mutually exclusive, but work together to promote peace and prosperity for our communities. They are fundamental to our stewardship.

Codification is a tool we use to aid in this stewardship. Codification also aides in our amending law in a responsible and efficient way. Codification can be viewed as a technical (or technique) breakthrough that helped bring our principles to life. It is such an important process that it is mandated by most legislative bodies today.

As we evaluate our processes and select technology to serve those processes, we need to keep these principles top of mind. Features from a specific software vendor might lead to a little better efficiency, but do they support our long-term commitment to our principles?

Principles first, then features, then vendors. Vendors and features will change. Our principles cannot.

Own Your Golden Source!

As a clerk, this is your charge. Secure law and steward change in a responsible manner.

First ensure your laws are stored in a format that survives the waves of change from vendors and their software packages. 

Ensure that as laws change, those changes are traceable and transparent.

Technology can act as an assistant to the human skills of ensuring law is clear and precise by filtering noise and establishing organization. (Hint: AI is not the answer).

The last mile of accessibility is well done today by software. But remember that vendors by design look to capture markets, not to enable first principles. 

Those principles are yours.

LegisWeb is built on the open standards mentioned above. LegisWeb maintains your laws in formats that survive, that are traceable, and are able to interact efficiently with accessibility and transparency vendors. 

LegisWeb creates organization to aid with precision and clarity. And it provides amending tools that protect the integrity of your laws in open standard formats.

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