Legislatures hit cyberspace.
Internet, a worldwide web of computer networks used by more than 20 million people, now provides virtually free access to legislative information from a handful of states.
Using a personal computer (PC) and modern, individuals with access to Internet can determine the status of a bill in Hawaii, view legislative calendars in North Carolina, find voting records in California and search state statutes in Utah.
Hawaii was the first state to offer legislative information through Internet. Through a tie to the University of Hawaii, first established in 1991, Internet users make a 'telnet' connection to the Hawaii FYI system, which contains the text of bills and resolutions, bill status information, committee hearing notices, Capitol logistical information, a tutorial on how a bill becomes law and more. Hawaii FYI, run by a quasi-governmental organization, provides free access to legislative, local and state government information through the Internet or a direct dial-up.
The California Legislature's approach to providing information through Internet is being watched closely by a number of state legislatures. A bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Debra Bowen and passed in 1993 requires the Legislative Counsel to make the calendar, text of each bill, bill history, bill status, bill analyses, voting information, veto messages, the code, constitution and statutes enacted after Jan. 1, 1993, available through the "largest nonproprietary, nonprofit cooperative public computer network" at no cost. Backers of the legislation mustered support by spreading the word electronically through computer bulletin boards. Assemblywoman Bowen received more than 1,300 pieces of electronic mail urging its passage.
No Trivial Undertaking
However, setting up a secure system to provide access to the massive volume of legislative information was not a trivial undertaking. First-year hardware, software and telecommunications costs will exceed $80,000, according to Bill Behnk, coordinator of Legislative Information Systems in the Office of the Legislative Counsel. He cautions legislators not to be misled into thinking that access will require little more than a $5,000 file server with 1 gigabyte (1 trillion characters) of storage as suggested by some Internet activists. The Legislature purchased a Sun Sparcstation 1,000 with 64 megabytes of main memory and 6 gigabytes of random access memory to handle their volume of legislative data. For security reasons, the system is designed to provide a 'firewall' between the legislative computer system and the system available to users of the Internet.
Interest in the California system has been phenomenal. Since it was first made available last January, there have been almost 200,000 requests for information from Internet users all over the world. On average, every 30 seconds someone queries the system. Every morning at 2, the system is updated with current information.
In Utah, the Legislature worked with the state library and the University of Utah to provide access though Internet to the full text of bills, the constitution and the state code. Legislative information is downloaded daily from the Legislature's bulletin board to the university's access system on Internet (a 'gopher' server). Internet users have requested additional legislative information, such as all committee agendas, but technical problems with the format of certain legislative documents prohibits making more information available at this time, according to Mark Allred, legislative computer services director.
During the 1994 session, Utah legislators and staff also began using Internet electronic mail (e-mail), enabling them to "talk" to Internet users worldwide. Internet mail is automatically sent to legislative computer mailboxes so that users have to access only one system to receive all their messages.
Information from the Minnesota House of Representatives has been available on Internet through a gopher server since February. Within an hour of being made public, House bills are available, although they can only be found by bill number. Senate information will be available in the future when staff resolve the technical issues of making bills searchable by text and displaying strike-outs and underlining. The text of the Minnesota statutes is also available. Steve Camp, data system project manager in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, explains that the statutes are broken down into 46,000 individual records that users can call up by statute number. Using spare equipment, Camp set up the file server, a computer that stores files for shared access, to interface with Internet at virtually no cost to the Legislature.
The North Carolina General Assembly first made its legislative information available through Internet in April. Through an arrangement with the Supercomputing Center in Research Triangle Park, legislative information is transmitted by high-speed leased line each night and made available through a file server housed in the center. The system provides access to bill history, bill status, text of bills pending or ratified, fiscal notes, calendars, members' addresses and phone numbers, and lists of committees and members.
Steep Learning Curve
Media, lobbyists and the information community in North Carolina are "wildly enthusiastic" about the General Assembly's new policy of providing access to legislative information through the Internet according to Glenn Newkirk, director of legislative automated systems. For several years the legislature had been looking for an equitable, easy-to-use and cost-effective way to provide access to legislative information, Newkirk says. Internet provides that opportunity, but "there is a fairly steep learning curve on this particular part of the information highway that users will have to learn to navigate." This will force separation of two cultures, people who are adventurous in cyberspace and those who are not.
Like Utah, the North Carolina General Assembly plans to provide a gateway between their internal e-mail system and the Internet so members and staff can easily send and receive messages from remote locations. Newkirk points out that it will take time for everyone to understand the potential of Internet. An individual in Nebraska has just as great an access to a North Carolina legislator as a resident of North Carolina. The negative side of the improved communications is the potential for electronic junk mail. Before diving into the Internet surf, Newkirk recommends establishing policies, reviewing information management plans and making sure that security, system availability and emergency back-up features are adequate.
Selected legislative information from Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Texas and Vermont also is available through Internet.
In these states, executive branch agencies or educational institutions have made specific bills, statutes, directories, committee rosters and other legislative material available through this worldwide network.
Other States Are Looking
Several states introduced legislation this session that explores or mandates Internet access. Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York have introduced bills that would make legislative information available through Internet. Washington and Connecticut set up task forces to study the best way to make government information available electronically, and Nebraska is currently conducting an interim study on the Internet.
At the federal level, members of Congress use Internet to communicate with constituents. Currently, about 25 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have public mailboxes on the Internet. Internet users can access "how laws are created" files and directories of committees. Plans are under way to add the text of federal legislation, according to Terry Nugent, director of House computer services. In addition to Congress, the White House routinely uses the Internet to send out documents.
The growth of electronic public information and demand for quick access to it is prompting many states to rethink the best way to make public information available. All state legislatures provide access to bills, the journal, state statutes and other legislative information in paper form. Many provide computerized help-desks in the capitol and 800 numbers for phone-in requests. More than 30 state legislatures provide dial-up access directly into legislative information systems for a fee. But there are ways legislatures can make information available through Internet virtually at no cost, and can establish two-way communication with constituents. Internet offers tremendous potential to improve the democratic process through a free flow of information and one-to-one or one-to-many communication. Effective use of the Internet, however, requires careful planning, management and oversight to prevent security problems and system overload.
What is the Internet?
Internet began as a project funded by the Department of Defense to link the major academic, government and industrial computer sites in the United States. Today Internet comprises some 5,000 networks connecting more than 500,000 computer hosts in 33 countries. Libraries, schools and research institutions make their resources available through Internet in order to promote sharing of information.
Internet has four main components:
* Electronic Mail--Nicknamed "e-mail" this component allows you to exchange messages via computer with people all over the world in a matter of seconds. Any individual with an Internet account can communicate via e-mail. Using e-mail you can also subscribe to mailing lists according to topic.
* Telnet--This is the command that allows you to log on to remote computers and interact with their systems including databases and informational systems. Using telnet you can search EPIC or DIALOG or library catalogs around the world.
* Usenet--Also called User Network, this is one of the biggest draws to Internet. Usenet users can read and participate in worldwide electronic discussions about science, culture, politics, food, movies, etc.
* FTP--File transfer protocol allows you to identify documents or applications in remote sites and transfer them electronically to your PC. Using FTP, for example, you can retrieve documents on how to use the Internet or discussions on recent congressional bills.
Jo Anne Bourquard is director of NCSL's Legislative Information Services department.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; legislative computer systems|
|Author:||Bourquard, Jo Anne|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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