Two Decades of GovTrack: Legislative Transparency for Democracy
Josh Tauberer is best known as the founder of GovTrack, the first website ever to provide user-friendly access to bills in Congress. Our friend Hudson Hollister, founder of HData, recently interviewed Josh for his thoughts on the present and future of legislative transparency and implications for the health of democracy. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Josh Tauberer, founder of GovTrack, thank you for being with us for this interview.
Josh, tell us about the initial inspiration for GovTrack.
It began a long time ago, at a time that was very different from where we are today.
Information about the government was a lot less accessible on the Internet than it is now. And as someone who was learning about the legislative process, for the first time really, in college, I saw that it was difficult to get legislative information online and understand it.
If there was a legislative topic that I was interested in, it was difficult to track it and find out when there were updates about relevant legislation.
So I began just downloading as much information about members of Congress and legislation as I could and using what today would be primitive tools to extract data out of that, and make a network of information about legislators and the legislation they were sponsoring, and turn that into a website.
Josh, why did you undertake this as your project? What made you passionate enough to undertake this work as a side gig?
A common acquaintance of ours once told me that I have an axe to grind!
That feeling motivated a lot of my work, though thankfully not any more. But at the time, the axe to grind was: there’s this legislative data and people aren’t giving it to me!
It wasn’t so much about politics, or even about any specific issue, although there were issues that initially got me into this. Really, the sustaining thing at that time was just, legislative data was fun. I wanted to use it and make something out of it. It happens to be that I find entering names of legislators into Excel to be kind of calming! I don’t want to give the impression that there was a grand grand plan or anything. I just enjoyed it, and I thought it was useful.
Then I found out it was actually useful to people.
When did you substantially complete GovTrack?
I would say 2009 was when GovTrack had more or less all the functionality that it has now.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that for a period of several years, GovTrack was the primary source available for legislative information. I don’t mean the primary source in the legal sense, but in that nothing else was out there, for certain kinds of legislative information. Can you talk a bit about that?
Right. From the end of 2004 and for several years, GovTrack was the most understandable website for legislative information. You could get email updates and content was cross-referenced in a way that it wasn’t on official government websites.
We also had congressional district maps, starting around 2005 or 2006. And we were the only site that had those maps zoomable to street level.
Through those years, until the open government movement really got going in 2009 and 2010, what sorts of encouragement did you receive and what kinds of adversity did you encounter?
A lot of encouragement just came from random people, such as students and researchers, emailing the site and saying they found this useful. We started to see some legislator offices in Congress were using our maps on their websites, although they never reached out.
When Obamacare was going through Congress, a lot of people on both sides were very interested in using GovTrack to track it. And that really was sort of our first peak in usage.
Did you ever get much reaction from the commercial providers of legislative information?
Occasionally someone would notice. They didn’t seem to really care all that much. I certainly wasn’t going to make GovTrack into a commercial provider.
What were the developments at GovTrack through 2016? What were the big changes?
The Obama administration favored open government, releasing an Open Government Directive on the first day in office. It was very exciting. A lot of people were getting involved in open government work at that time.
There were a lot of adjacent projects during those years that GovTrack benefited from, either directly or just by having more people working on open government and advocating.
So by the end of that time period the open government community had a good relationship with the staffers in the parts of Congress that were producing legislative data. And we got the data we needed!
Looking back, it was only seven or eight years, but it felt like an eternity. By 2017, all the data sources we wanted were either done or the underlying systems were in place.
Let’s get to the present. What’s the present state of GovTrack? What is the present state of open legislative data, writ large?
We have a team at GovTrack – three of us work part time on it. We do other things besides managing and publishing legislative data. We post videos summarizing legislation, and they’re fun. My staffer who works on that is a journalist, not a techie – and a musician! And sometimes he does musical summaries!
But our challenges are no longer anything like the information at the beginning, in 2004 and 2005, when there wasn’t enough legislative information available. Now there’s far too much information for people and the big issues facing society are not getting enough access to information, but knowing who to trust and how to cut through the noise.
We publish lots of legislative information, but people will argue with us on Twitter about whether the 2020 election was stolen or not.
Do you think I’m oversimplifying, Josh, if I say that open government advocates may have originally had faith that open government would lead to wisdom in government? And are now reconciling with the fact that it didn’t.
I certainly thought that at the beginning. It was one of my motivating factors that if we teach people how their government works, then things will be better.
And I still believe we do this for the audience for whom that actually works. I still think that’s important. That audience is grounded and wants to take legislative information seriously. That audience is still there. So that’s good.
But for a public information website, it’s very frustrating. For example, we do an analysis every year that ranks legislators from most conservative to most liberal, and it’s based on one slice of the legislative data for each year or each Congress. And in 2019, we had ranked Kamala Harris as the most liberal Senator at that time.
And this became so popular on the right that it made it into the 60 Minutes episode where they interviewed Kamala Harris. Yet we know from her career that actually she’s not the most liberal person in government, and our ranking was a tool, not meant to be a conclusion.
What is your future outlook for GovTrack? And for open government?
A while back, it became pretty apparent that all the folks who started in the open government movement in 2009 and 2010 are sort of branching out into each of our respective directions. Half of the Sunlight Foundation staff from that era went into government, which is great, for instance.
But as everybody went in a slightly different direction, the open government community became less coherent. And that was sad.
I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but I think if we’re going to have a strong advocacy movement to push for open government, then it will require a more coherent set of people outside government, working together again.
And for the future of GovTrack? As an organization, I think we’ve done about as much as we can do. We can serve our current purpose without needing a bigger budget or more people.
For those who care about digital structure in legislation and regulation – what projects should they undertake and what projects should they support?
I think the kind of million-dollar projects [in open government and digital legislation and regulation] that existed 10 years ago, some of them still exist and are getting easier, but no one is really working on them. For example, people still aren’t really doing state-level analysis of legislation, legislators.
Thanks to the work from Xcential, state legislative data is getting upgraded, but a lot of PDF-based documents are still out there in state legislation. There is still an opportunity to download all the PDF-based legislative materials in a state, convert that to structured data, and do some fun data analysis, so that things get better and better.
I was going to say – things will get better because there are many Josh Tauberers out there.
Well, I do hope that there are a lot of people out there like me, and I hope that there are also a lot of people out there like you.
But I also hope people know there’s a wide range of ways to make the world better in other ways beyond the way I did it.