Wake up legislatures, it’s 2012!

“Not everything is political, but increasingly, everyone is.” – Sarah Schacht

For those feeling like they have no say in government, Sarah Schacht, founder and executive director of Knowledge As Power, an online nonpartisan system that helps individuals effectively participate in the legislative process, would like to convince you otherwise. She’s spent the last 10 years of her life embedded politically and she’s made it her personal mission to help the average individual become a powerful citizen.

Her chapter ‘Democracy, Under Everything’ in Open Government is an open call to state legislatures to make government information accessible to civilians in a timely fashion. Arguing that the websites available to us for searching information on bills etc. often are not published quickly enough and done so on archaic public systems, Schacht indeed makes the case that “the tools of our modern legislative process are old and ill-fitting” (Lathrop et. al 2010).

To support her claims she details story after story from her journey as a college student, to Congressional intern to starting Knowledge as Power. Her biggest gripe isn’t that the legislative process needs to be changed; rather, citizens just need the proper distributive tools to stay in the know about what’s happening around them politically. At one point she compares the internal Congress site (that she had access to as an intern) with that of Congresses public facing one Thomas.gov, citing that the two are vastly different with when they get updated, how they’re designed to work and the fact that it’s not written in plain non-legalese jargon.

Schacht goes on to end the chapter by offering up both short and long-term solutions for citizens and the government. Citizens, she argues, need to be more knowledgeable and when reaching out to their state legislatures, they need to focus on quality and brevity rather than quantity when they write. The government, she argues, needs to standardize the way it distributes its legislative and government information and everyone (the government, nonprofits and the private sector) can all benefit tremendously by deploying open source tools for updating the systems to all talk to one another.

Here’s a quick takeaway of her chapter in several bullet points:

  • Technology has enabled us in recent years to want to be more involved in the democratic process
  • The tools and systems we use to get information from Congress are archaic and outdated, the different networks often can’t talk to one another
  • It’s easier to get the snowpack of your favorite mountain than it is to get updated information on your favorite state bill
  • Since the revolutionary period, Americans have always had frustration with inaccessible public records
  • Some state and local governments actually charge citizens to access legislative information – Arkansas is cited
  • Many of the legislative information available to the public requires those to have a law degree to read it accurately
  • There’s no excuse for not having all of this readily available to us given where we are as a country technologically
  • There are short and long-term solutions for citizens and the government on how to improve civic engagement

From my point of view, Schacht is spot on in her writing. Personally, there does seem to be a huge disparity between the ways we can gather legislative information and the level by which we’ve advanced technically as a culture. There’s just no reason why our government can’t keep up with time. Echoing James Wilson’s speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, we do have the right to know what our legislature is doing and there shouldn’t be any reason for them to keep anything from us at this point. After all, it’s 2012 and there’s something called the Internet – and it’s fast.

Discussion Questions:

Schacht argues that it’s not the things that are getting more political (school lunches, urban trees, fish in the ocean) but it’s us who are. Do you agree or not?

How connected do you feel to the legislative process? Do you feel like you can look up a specific bill when you need? Where do you do it? When did you last do it?

Why has it taken the government so long to update their systems? Is this intentional?

———–

Lathrop, Daniel, and Laurel Ruma. Open Government: [collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice]. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2010. Print.

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