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Unused power: legislators ignore technology.

A computer consultant and speaker pro tem, the author takes legislators to task for lagging far behind the other branches, and business, in taking advantage of information technology.

Legislators usually want to lead the parade. But right now there is an important parade going by that hasn't caught their attention.

It's the parade of information technology, the electronic medium used in offices and homes to improve the way we conduct our affairs. It legislatures we see it in the form of computers, telephones, televisions, fax machines, pagers and modems. Even a casual observer sees the benefits of passing information this way. You hear the words around the Capitol--LANS, networks, bandwidth--so you know these new technology are being used. But despite the pervasive manner in which they are changing the world, information technologies don't seem to interest legislators beyond certain narrow applications.

High-tech information system have caught the attention of the other branches of government and of decision makers in the business world who use them to great advantage. These new technologies increase productivity (through innovations such as E-mail and word processing) and improve the quality of decisions (with the help of "decision support systems" and artificial intelligence).

State and local executive branch agencies have high-tech ways to deliver services to citizens. In Tulare County, Calif., families can pre-qualify for AFDC grants through terminals set up in public places. Food stamps and welfare payments are being issued through magnetic-stripe cards and automatic teller machines in pilot projects in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Minnesota and Iowa. Ohio, South Carolina and other states are developing similar projects. In Mercer County, N. J., citizens vote with just a touch to the screen of a personal computer that automatically tabulates the results of every race as soon as the polls close. The Minnesota Department of Transportation uses artificial intelligence to help truckers legally navigate the state's roads and highways. Truckers calling in on a touch-tone phone get weight permits and route information via computer.

Governors have at their fingertips computer technology that monitors, analyzes and projects budget scenarios. Reports that used to take hours to assemble now can be created and displayed--complete with graphics--in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Executive branch decision makers can now examine myriad variables of the budget in a manageable format. John Sununu, while governor of New Hampshire, used a "decision support system" to assist him in making budget decisions.

The judicial branch has equally ambitious high-tech systems that schedule judges and track cases. Time-saving arraignment hearing are held via interactive television without moving prisoners. These TV hearings allow judges, defendants, attorneys and other interested parties to see and talk with one another from separate locations. Judges are also experimenting with the use of artificial intelligence to assist in sentencing. This promises a more consistent and fairer system than relying exclusively on a judge's decision.

Although the new technology offers many opportunities to improve the workings of the legislative branch, little is going on. Legislators could have at their fingertips original information--such as revenue data, agency expenditure data and census data--to examine and manipulate for more complete critical analysis and oversight. They could directly monitor the expenditures of state agencies and know how money is really being spent instead of depending on "packaged" information issued by the agency itself. They could use E-mail and have verification that their messages were received. They could use constituent tracking systems to provide more timely and better services to the citizens in their districts. The new information technology could give them a direct link between their homes and the capitol at any time of the day. It could also bring more people into capitol committee rooms to testify via interactive television.

This is not to say legislators aren't aware of the advances--after all, they approve policies and budgets for technology in the other two branches. They create programs to encourage and accelerate high-tech in the business community. And they have approved sophisticated high-tech information systems to support legislative staff. The services delivered by revisers, researchers and clerks are often supported by the advanced used of information technologies.

Unfortunately, many of these systems were designed to meet the needs of staff or the staff's perception of what legislators want. Even in legislatures with a sophisticated level of technology, lawmakers are inclined to make use of only electronic calendars. E-mail, bill status and word processing. And much of what's offered has come from staff initiatives, not legislators requests. In extreme cases where legislative information systems have been implemented to reflect only staff needs, the systems tend to be too complicated for most members to use only occasionally.

Lawmakers are often not directly involved in making important policy decisions about information technology for the legislature. They ought to be. Only legislators know the policy considerations that need to be taken into account when technology systems are designed for their chambers. When lawmakers aren't involved the lose strategic opportunities to have systems that do what they need them to do. Without guidance, technical staff members opt for improvements that in essence add either speed or efficiency to the same method of doing things. Legislators who fail to become involved may soon discover that their chambers and offices have been computerized, but not much to their benefit.

In 1976, before many of the high-tech possibilities of today existed, John Worthley, a researcher at the State University of New York at Albany, predicted in a book he edited on legislative information systems that legislatures would lose out to the executive branch if they failed to computerize their branch of government. Today, many political observers claim that legislatures have definitely lost power to the executive branch. Jerry Mechling, director of the Strategic Computing Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says legislatures have fallen behind in taking advantage of new technologies that could assist them in using information to their benefit. "And this certainly has implications for the legislative branch in regard to overseeing executive branch agencies," he says.

Legislators are losing out because they are not paying enough attention to the possibilities in information technology. Legislatures are being computerized, but too often it's merely to do electronically what is currently being done manually. Instead, lawmakers should be asking for the electronic tools that can help them make better policy decisions.

All over the country legislators have been restoring their chambers and returning to the pst aesthetically. Unfortunately, few are paying the same kind of attention to current and future technology needs. This may not be for long, however. Redistricting has brought home to many legislatures the power of high-tech information. Now they know that data can be changed from rows and columns into original maps with visual displays. They know that by displaying data more graphically, characteristics that could have been missed are suddenly revealed.

The high turnover rates in legislatures over the past decade may also bring high-tech to the institution. New members are more apt to be experienced in using information technology. As they gain seniority and power, they will most certainly demand improvements in these services.

Even more legislators will warm up to information technology when prices drop and systems become easier to use. When lawmakers can access information from computer databases by their voice and touchscreen rather than the keyboard, their interest will increase.

Glenn Newkirk, director of automation in the North Carolina Legislature, predicts that "in many instances, legislators will soon bypass staff and get information directly from databases." He attributes this to the fundamental need of legislators to communicate with constituents, which is not a concern of legislative central staff.

High-tech legislators may also bring problems to the legislature. Some executive branch agencies and governors will try to keep the legislature from having direct access to the information managed by the executive branch. Constitutional battles could ensue on the basis of separation of powers. (North Carolina is one state that has already passed laws guaranteeing the legislature access to executive agency information.)

Minnesota Representative Robert Vanasek, former speaker, says the new technologies will have enormous impacts on how legislators approach problems, but good public policy might suffer if legislators become too preoccupied with analyzing the effect proposals might have on their own districts at the expense of statewide considerations.

Other problems will arise at the technology moves forward and will have to be addressed as systems are implemented. Consider the ramifications of allowing members of electronically transmit amendments as bills are being considered. Not only would this significantly increase the amount of time spent in formal floor sessions, presiding officers would lose the control they now enjoy by being able to order the sequence of amendments.

These problems are nothing compared to the predicament legislators will find themselves in if they continue to ignore the opportunities of high technology. If present trends continue, legislators will be asked to handle more information and more requests, introduce and consider more bills, and do more with less. Joining the information technology parade will give them the tools they need to keep legislatures an equal branch of government.

Rick Krueger is the speaker pro tem of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
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Author:Krueger, Rick
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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