Only 5 Copies Available…
Over the weekend I listened to commentary on the passage of the President’s Stimulus bill and heard Congressman Ron Paul claim that there were only 5 hard copies of the legislative tome available for review to legislators for a material period of time. I also saw reporters page through the bill on TV to illustrate the hand scribbled amendments in the margin of the final version sent to the President.
I was a legislative aid on Capitol Hill from 1993-1999, when collaboration technology was just getting started, as was 24 hour news coverage. Legislation was available online, but never immediately. Back then, when the President’s budget was sent to Congress, it was done so in paper, and staff would stay up all night reading through a single version so the Senator could have comments ready for an early morning statement. Rapidly amended legislation always caused tension between Members because there was no way to quickly distribute changes on the fly and make intelligent public comments to feed the increasing 24 hour news demands. So the news coverage for urgent funding packages (usually supplemental’s for disaster response) or high profile bills usually devolved into a discussion of process and representative fairness, rather than the substantive merits of the legislation. Much like the public discourse this past weekend.
But this is 2009.
Real time collaborative document review and publishing are matured technologies. The Government Printing Office already distributes the president’s budget in a digitally certified PDF as its preferred format (www.gpoaccess.gov/authentication/index.html). When distributed this way, there is no reason to limit the number of copies to five…although the technology exists to limit and authenticate the recipients without any externally required technology besides Adobe Reader (which already resides on 89% of connected computers). Not only does that technology make it capable to distribute and review a document in real time securely, but it also can allow for comment and markup from multiple sources.
Congressman Paul also commented that President Obama had made a campaign pledge to make the stimulus available for public review for 5 days and had failed to do so. The technology for certified public distribution certainly would not have been a limiting factor either, again using PDF and Reader externally…and sites like the one Obama sponsored in the Senate (www.usaspending.gov).
Congressman Paul’s comments mostly made me feel guilty; given my background and current role, I’m clearly not doing my part to evangelize in my old stomping ground. But moreover, I think it illustrates the opportunity for technology to change the dynamic in government. Obama will push for connected government and transparency. This shouldn’t only include the connection between citizens and their government, but also between the institutions of government. No doubt we all would have benefited from a public discourse on the substantive debate on the stimulus initiatives this past week, rather than the debate on the procedural flaws in its evolution…this an opportunity for technology to lead the way.
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