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Website Brings Citizens Into Legislative Process

Webmaster Shelley Day and IT Manager Mark Allred with the servers for the Utah legislative website.
Dan Bammes
Webmaster Shelley Day and IT Manager Mark Allred with the servers for the Utah legislative website.

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT –
It's still early in the 2011 legislative session, and as Utahns hear stories about the issues and debate in the session, many wonder how to find out more - and how to take an active role in shaping issues from the number of kids in our classrooms to whether phosphorus will once again be allowed in dishwashing detergent. All of that is accessible on the Utah legislative website.

Sitting at a table on the first floor of Utah's state capitol, Jenn Gonnelly opens her laptop. She works with the League of Women Voters, following legislation on social services. She logs in to, and in just a few seconds, she's found the bill she's interested in.

"I can see that bill and its number, which is HB 11. Click on that and it will give me its status, where it is in what committees. I can even see what votes have been taken and I can look at the bill text."

Take a peek into the galleries or committee rooms during the legislative session. Everybody's logged in to the website, following developments on their laptops, iPads or smart phones. The amount of information available on the site makes it possible to follow almost any topic you might be interested in. You can look up a subject - say immigration - click on it and see what bills have been drafted. You can look up bills slated for debate on the floors of both the House and the Senate, which bills are coming up next, which have been delayed temporarily - and watch the video or listen to the audio of those debates as they happen.

Jenn Gonnelly says you don't always have to be listening in to follow the changes. "I can sign up so it tells me absolutely everything that changes on the bill. That's a lot of email because even if a word has been changed or a vote has been taken or it's been filed somewhere, I will get an e-mail. But I can sign up to get an e-mail simply if the text changes or simply get an e-mail if a vote has been taken and it moves in committee. So again, without having to be in the room, I know almost immediately what's happening with the legislation I'm interested in."

Utah's legislative website goes back to the arrival of the Internet in the mid-90's. As far back as 1995, it was winning awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for making the legislative process more accessible to both reporters and citizens. Pam Greenberg with the National Conference of State Legislatures says Utah's site won its award as best in the country in 2005.

"One of the things I really like about Utah's website is the way they provide links to recordings," Greenberg says. "So, for example, if you're interested in a particular bill, you can read the bill and right there on the same page there's a link where you'll be able to listen to the floor debate that took place on that bill."

And it's operated by fewer than a dozen people who all have other jobs to do in the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. Mark Allred, the office's information technology manager, points out the components in a small room with a noisy air conditioner. "This is actually the web server right here," he says. "Kind of a mirrored server so that if one side fails, the other side picks up, so, hopefully that keeps it from going down except when we mean it to."

Keeping up with the flow of text data is easy with today's technology - but Allred says they have plenty of capacity to handle the audio and video as streams as well. "At any given time, we're probably doing a hundred streams, and if we have a big, important issue, and issue where a lot of people are interested, we get up into the hundreds. I think we figured that thousands are not beyond the realm of possibility."

Representative David Litvack, the Democrats' leader in the Utah House, says the value of the site is not just in what's happening today. "If I'm looking back on what happened," he says, "If I get a question from a constituent on a bill from 2-3 years ago, and I want to remember how I voted, I go on to the legislature website. So it's very user-friendly and it's a great resource."

Like anything else, the legislature's website takes a little bit of time to master. But Shelley Day, the webmaster, says it does come with instructions. There's a whole section with information on how a bill becomes law and much more.

"There is information about resolutions - what's the difference between a resolution and a bill. About committees - testifying before a committee - to give people confidence to know how to approach committee members and express their needs and desires and their concerns about particular legislation or issues."

With everything it does include, though, there's one piece of information you won't find on the legislature's website. It won't tell you the entire voting record for an individual legislator. To get that, you have to go to the House or the Senate offices and ask for a printout. It does tell you how each member voted on a given bill.

And while the legislature's website provides phone numbers and e-mail addresses for every Senator and representative, Pam Greenberg says other states have been taking the initiative in bringing in citizen participation online.

"The Nevada legislature had an online opinion poll that they've continued where a citizen can vote about views on a particular bill. And the New York Senate allows comments on bills and you can actually subscribe to a little feed that will allow you to get updates and read what others have read about the bills in question."

The Republican majority and the Democratic minority in the Utah Senate have their own websites, including weblogs and other features that haven't yet become part of the official state system. And individual legislators use Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to update constituents. Representative Litvack says the end result of all this is likely to be better legislation.

"If the public is more engaged and we're getting more feedback and more interaction with the public on ideas, whether that's specific legislation or budget items or whatever that may be, we're taking that. We're incorporating that into our ideas, and I think you get better outcomes when you have greater participation."

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