GovTrack users want better transparency from Congress

It is time for the Library of Congress to modernize the way they disseminate legislative information to the public, and GovTrack users are standing up to a call to push Congress to make this happen.

I asked my users here whether they would sign on to a letter to Congress asking for better legislative transparency. In the week from March 7-14, more than 8,000 individuals gave their name and address, and wrote 150 pages worth of comments about why GovTrack is important to them! This is an impressive showing. I will been using this outpouring of support as I lobby Congress for better legislative data, in concert with the Sunlight Foundation — UPDATE: and Washington Watch.

Here’s what some users wrote:

“As a citizen, it is my responsibility to ensure that I am involved in the process of government. GovTrack makes it possible for me to hear about and monitor legislation so that I may make my voice heard in the process.”

“Gov Track informs me of bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate and allows me to efficeintly track those bills. It helps greatly with my job as a Chief Compliance Manager for a credit union as well as in my life as an interested citizen.”

“GovTrack is a single concise source for tracking an assortment of legislation. This user-friendly system is far superior to the Thomas system and allows interaction between parties. The PopVox site is a great addition to GovTrack.”

“Its very important to be informed about what is actually happening in the US. As an overseas citizen, most of my knowledge of current events comes from news companies, all with separate political agendas. If I read the bills as they come out, i avoid bias.”

“TRANSPARENCY is mandatory…..enough said.”

Thanks to everyone who wrote such kind words about GovTrack — it is sincerely appreciated. And I’ll write more about how your comments were used.

What I’m asking Congress and the Library of Congress to do is to share their internal database of legislative information that powers their THOMAS website. That database would make GovTrack more accurate. And it would do the same for the dozens of other websites and apps that reuse the legislative database that we put together and share with others, and dozens of other websites and apps that reverse-engineer THOMAS directly themselves.

The Library of Congress’s current priority, with regard to legislative information, is to upgrade the THOMAS website. While the upgrade is long overdue (THOMAS was built in 1994), sharing their data is both far cheaper and will have a much wider impact than a website upgrade.

Since 2004, GovTrack.us has been one of the most popular websites among the public to research and track the legislation that Congress is considering. Over the last six months, GovTrack and its data partners have been used by 5–10 million individuals, which as far as I can tell is more than the number of people using THOMAS. I’m not saying that the Library of Congress should not be providing THOMAS, but helping websites like GovTrack help the public is today the most efficient and effective way for the Library to fulfill this part of its mission.

 “Bulk data” is today considered a core component of any government information dissemination program. In 2009, the Government Printing Office began offering bulk data for bill text, the Federal Register, and other publications, leading directly to new services that were created in the private sector to help the public. Under the direction of the Majority Leader, the House began publishing bulk data for bills to be considered in the week ahead. Executive branch agencies are all now under a directive to embrace data.

I’ve been beating this drum for a long time. In 2001, when I was just starting work on GovTrack, I asked the Library of Congress about it. Six years later, I was joined by the Sunlight Foundation in our Open House Project report, and in 2009 we got the House to enact a law to ask the Library of Congress to look into it. Yes, even an Act of Congress was not enough. So here we are today, going back to the congressional staff that oversee the Congress’s library asking them to revisit legislative data again. Stay tuned as we dig further into this in the next few weeks.

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1 Comment

  1. Sounds like something sorely needed to me. The government is always and forever slipping something by the average citizen whereby our civil liberties are simply signed away in legislation most of us don’t even know about. Just one thing… where’s this “letter” about why govtrack is important to us… I’ll sign on.

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