Every year under the dome of California's state capital, 120 full-time lawmakers along with more than 2,000 full-time staff and 130 committees gather to craft policies affecting the state's 38 million residents and the world’s 8th largest economy. These lawmakers introduce an average of 5,000 bills each legislative session, creating a booming industry for the state's 1,100 registered lobbyists. But given the size of the state’s annual budget – more than $150 billion – and the sheer volume of bills and hearings, there is shockingly little insight into the lawmaking process.
For example, the State of California does not produce any transcripts or minutes that capture the testimony, debate and negotiations that occur among lawmakers, lobbyists, committee staff and stakeholders. Further, despite having enacted the Brown Act, which is a rigorous body of meeting rules intended to create openness and transparency for local governments, California’s state legislators exempt themselves from most of the Brown Act’s requirements, including even the minimal standard of producing meeting minutes.
Although the majority of state legislature hearings are audio or video recorded, the thousands of hours of multimedia archives are unsearchable and difficult to access, even for the most sophisticated practitioners.
As a result, the news media and the public have virtually no way to easily find out what happened during a legislative session. The only available documentation is the print version of a bill, the committee analyses, and the final votes. But while these static before‑and‑after snapshots document the 'ʹwhat'ʹ, they contain no information about the 'ʹwhy'ʹ, ‘who’ or the ‘how.’ Citizens cannot see who requested certain amendments, how the debate and negotiations unfolded, what representations or commitments were made, whether representations and commitments were honored, or discover whether there is a political or financial relationship between special‑interest testimony and lawmakers’ positions and votes. This lack of transparency cripples efforts to promote civic engagement and accountability.
Digital Democracy is a new online platform featuring a searchable database of state legislative committees hearings, allowing the user to search videos by keyword, topic, speaker or date. Digital Democracy is a first of its kind tool because it will transcribe all legislative hearing videos and will make the transcriptions available to users in their searchable entirety. These data rich transcripts represent an entirely new data set that is currently unavailable to the public. Additionally, sophisticated meta tags attached to the transcripts will enable users to run in-‐‑depth analytics to identify trends and relationships. A robust database of all speakers will track individual participants’ testimony, positions, and donation and gift histories.
Digital Democracy will incorporate campaign contribution data to reveal the exchange of money between special interests and lawmakers as legislation is crafted and voted on. A user will be able to explore financial relationships between people, by proximity in time to votes, and between industries and legislative vote patterns. Data will also be incorporated into the site from MapLight, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, SunLight Foundation, state legislative websites, state Secretary of State Databases of Registered Lobbyists, and government ethics agencies. Users will be able to construct complex queries pulling from these interconnected datasets to construct a media rich picture of the decision-‐‑making process.
This project is pushing beyond the technical challenges of providing mere access to information, instead focusing on how this new data set can be meaningfully interpreted and acted upon. Tools within the system will allow a user to quickly and easily search, locate, view, clip, and share this information and opinions on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and other social media platforms. The video clips will provide dynamic content for grassroots mobilizers, online media outlets, bloggers, professional associations, and government watchdogs.
The Digital Democracy platform is designed to be simple enough for a basic user interested in learning more about their government and sophisticated enough for journalists, public policy professionals, and researchers to use.
Although California is the focus of this first phase of Digital Democracy, this platform could easily be expanded and applied to local, state, and national legislative bodies anywhere in the world. Additionally, because the data input are Internet standard audio and video streams, once developed, this tool could be utilized with relative ease by watchdogs and proponents of democracy across all 50 states.
Many legislative offices struggle to create ways to communicate with and motivate those affected by policies being crafted in the legislature. Lawmakers and their staff will utilize the Digital Democracy system to improve communication with constituents and key stakeholders by providing quick updates on debates affecting various groups within the community.
The Digital Democracy project will also have a positive impact on keeping those involved in the legislative process honest. Capitol insiders will use the system to ensure commitments made during negotiations are kept, and they will also be empowered to discover misrepresentations and dishonest dealings. Improved prospects for enforcing compromises and applying political penalties will elevate the tenor of state politics.
Community Issue Advocates
States often have thousands of community-based issue groups affected by state budget and policy decisions. These local advocates often represent some of the most important constituencies such as foster children, the disabled, seniors, and the homeless, the very constituencies with no powerful special interest backing. These community organizations cannot afford to hire powerful lobbyists to represent them in their state capitols. As a result, local representatives must work incredibly hard to track legislative activities and find time to travel significant distances to their statehouses at key moments to personally lobby for budget and policy outcomes. Unfortunately, these advocates typically cannot compete with the access to information enjoyed by special interest lobbyists and are ill equipped to effectively engage.
Digital Democracy seeks to provide these local advocates with virtual access into all committee rooms where they will be able to monitor arguments being made by other issue stakeholders and stay current on the discussions affecting the crafting and amendment of bills.
According to a July 2014 report by PEW Research Center, full-time newspaper newsroom staffing declined by 35% between 2003 through 2012. The study’s major findings include:
- “Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter… to the statehouse.”
- “86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter… to the statehouse.”
- “About one-in-six (16%) of all the reporters in statehouses work for nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sites and nonprofit organizations.”
- “Students account for 14% of the overall statehouse reporting corps.”The result is that the one organization upon which the public most relies to monitor and report important issues – the media – is no longer able to effectively serve this important function. This critical watchdog feature of investigative journalism will be reinvigorated as Digital Democracy enables reporters and bloggers to remotely scan hearings by speaker or keyword, quickly honing in on newsworthy moments.
Government Watchdog Organizations
A growing number of nonprofit watchdogs are compiling and analyzing government data to empower the public with greater insight into the factors influencing policy outcomes. Organizations such as MapLight, California Common Sense, SunLight Foundation, and National Institute for Money in State Politics are developing increasingly sophisticated databases and visualization tools that provide the public with unprecedented access and insight into government’s decision-making process. Digital Democracy seeks to contribute a powerful new dataset to this community of open government watchdogs.
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