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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title V - Enabling Electronic Access and Analysis of Parliamentary Information

Summary:

Parliamentary websites are an essential means of communication with citizens even in societies with limited Internet penetration, by facilitating access to parliamentary information by civil society, which can further disseminate information to interested citizens. Parliamentary information shall be released online in structured and open formats that allow citizens to analyze and reuse this information using the full range of technology tools. Information should be hyperlinked and easily searchable, while preference should be given to the use of non-proprietary and free software. While parliamentary websites should endeavor to make use of interactive tools for engaging citizens and provide alert or mobile services, information should also be downloadable, including in bulk, so that citizens can create their own tools for analyzing and engaging with parliamentary information. Parliament has a duty to mitigate technological barriers to use of parliamentary information and should guarantee citizen privacy for accessing information.

Sec. 35. Maintaining Parliamentary Websites

Even in countries with limited Internet usage, the maintenance and regular updating of a comprehensive parliamentary website is a vital aspect of parliamentary openness in the modern, interconnected world. Parliament shall ensure that parliamentary information is available in electronic format and shall regard online dissemination as an essential means of communication.

Parliamentary websites are a critical tool for enhancing citizen outreach and engagement. Parliamentary websites broaden citizen access to parliamentary information by giving any citizen with access to the Internet the ability to use website content at their own convenience, irrespective of geographic location, schedule, or other potential barriers. Even where Internet penetration is limited, internet access often gets vital information to leading civil society organizations and to the media, who are then able to disseminate the information more broadly. Information provided electronically is often more readily searchable than information provided on paper, and it can be more easily analyzed and shared among citizens. Some parliaments use their websites to improve citizen participation in the parliamentary process by developing tools that allow citizens to provide input on legislation, provide feedback to MPs, and discuss parliamentary matters through social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter.

According to the World e-Parliament Report 2010, “[w]ebsites have become the primary means by which parliaments make their work and their documents known to civil society, to the media and, most importantly, directly to citizens.”[1] It reports, furthermore, that 97% of parliaments surveyed have a website, which “... suggests that several parliaments have made considerable progress in achieving high levels of openness and transparency...”[2] SADC-PF asserts that “[p]arliament shall have a regularly updated website to enhance and promote information sharing and interaction with citizens and the outside world.”[3] Civil society groups[4] and the open data movement[5] have advocated for greater parliamentary usage of websites to disseminate information.

Recognizing the importance of parliamentary websites, the European Parliament’s OPPD has stated that, “[t]hose administrative offices responsible for producing parliamentary documents need to recognise that websites increasingly are the primary means by which the public and the members obtain legislative information.”[6] This was reflected in the European Parliament’s newly passed law governing the openness and release of parliamentary information, which mandates that European Union institutions “should make publicly accessible by default on their websites as many categories of documents as possible.”[7]  A variety of resources and tools, , including Akoma Ntoso and Bungeni,[8] are available to enhance parliament’s ability to share information through the web in open data formats.


[1] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 49.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] SADC PF, Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures in Southern Africa, §6.4.2.

[4] Center for Liberal Strategies, Open Parliaments: Transparency and Accountability of Parliaments in South-East Europe, p. 15.

[5] TAI, Opening Government, 2011, p. 15.

[6] OPPD, Information and Communication Technologies in Parliament, European Parliament, August 2010,p. 18.

[7] Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. Official Journal L 145 , 31/05/2001 P. 0043 – 0048, 13

[8] For more information on Akoma Ntoso and Bungeni, see their websites at http://www.akomantoso.org and http://www.bungeni.org. Both accessed 6/25/2012.

Sec. 36. Providing Information in Open and Structured Formats

Parliamentary information shall be compiled and released in an open and structured format, such as structured XML, that can be read and processed by computers, so that parliamentary information can be easily reused and analyzed by citizens, civil society, the private sector and government.

While it is essential to make parliamentary information available in electronic formats, not all electronic formats are alike. Information presented in a Microsoft Word document, PDF, or an HTML web page, cannot be processed or analyzed using software without first being “scraped” from its original source and reorganized in a database. The development of customized scraping tools is laborious and the results must be parsed for errors caused by scraping. Information provided in open and structured data formats, such as XML, can be processed and re-purposed without these issues, which allows software developers to focus on developing tools that add value to parliamentary information.

There is an emerging international consensus that government and parliamentary information should be made available in open and structured formats. As stated by the IPU, “open document standards, such as XML, should be used to prepare proposed legislation and other parliamentary documentation. Eventually all documentation and media should be made available using open standards.”[1] The Global Centre for ICT in Parliament explains that “open standards for documents are an essential component of [transparent document management systems] …  Standards are needed to provide the functionality and flexibility required by parliaments for diverse requirements such as searching, exchanging, integrating, rendering, and particularly for ensuring the long term availability of digital record at an affordable cost. XML supports the values of transparency, accessibility, and accountability in a variety of ways.”[2] 

The World e-Parliament Report 2010 survey found that only 34% of parliaments with document systems in place (14% total) currently used XML.[3] However, use of XML is quickly expanding among parliaments. The InterParliamentary EU information eXchange (IPEX) recently found that 14 of 33 parliaments in the European Union are currently using XML for legislative documents and that many others looking to develop that capability.[4] In April 2012, at a meeting of the Speakers of many European parliaments, the role of open standards in providing better access to parliamentary information was formally recognized.[5] Beyond Europe, a law adopted in Brazil requires the government (including parliament) to release public data in an XML format based on the Akoma Ntoso standard that is gaining traction worldwide as a standard for parliamentary data.[6] The Chilean Senate is developing an XML-based legislative mark-up system that will allow the Senate to release parliamentary information in an open data format on the parliament’s website.[7] Parliamentary chambers in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Suriname and Ecuador have been testing Bungeni, a suite of open source applications for managing legislative information in XML following the Akoma Ntoso standard, and may use Bungeni to support their legislative information management needs.


[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, p. 14.

[2] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 103.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

[4] Survey on the EU Parliaments initiatives on common standards for digital data and documents, Submitted by the IPEX Board to the Secretaries General of the EU Parliaments on 6 February 2012. http://www.ictparliament.org/attachements/XMLImplementation_Survey_common_standards.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, http://www.ictparliament.org/node/4707. Accessed 3/23/2012.

[6] Brazilian Law 12527, adopted November 2011.

[7] Roberto Bustos L., Senate of the Republic of Chile, Markup System of Session Diaries, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament Meeting, Washington, D.C., Feb 27-29, 2012. http://www.ictparliament.org/attachements/XMLmeeting/Day2B1-Bustos.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 37. Mitigating Technological Barriers

Parliament shall seek to mitigate technological barriers to using parliamentary information by presenting information in easily accessible formats and by providing clear instructions for use of any online databases or tools that enable citizens to retrieve parliamentary information from the parliamentary website. To the extent parliament provides a user interface, it shall use best practices to maximize user experience.

Information and documents produced by parliaments should be accessible to citizens regardless of the technology being used or the level of technological knowledge and ability of the citizen.  As noted by the European Parliament, the “content of a document shall be available without discrimination on the grounds of visual impairment, working language or operating system platform. Institutions shall provide for actual access by an applicant to the content of documents without technical discrimination.”[1]  The Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites has specific recommendations on making parliamentary websites as simple to use as possible.  Ease of use can be improved by explaining the organization of the website, choosing design elements with the user in mind, and conducting user testing of final product. Further, the Guidelines recommend that websites comply by W3C standards[2] or others which ensure that websites can be used by persons with disabilities. Examples of design elements that would be important to ensure ease of use include: a section with frequently asked questions, a site map, a help function, webmaster contact information, and instructions on how to use search functionality.[3]

International organizations, governments and parliaments have recognized the importance of enhancing technical literacy. In Namibia, Parliament has partnered with aid organizations to implement web training to schoolchildren, specifically detailing the parliamentary website.[4] The Parliament introduced programs like a Mobile Training Unit, which travels around the country providing computer training.[5] Countries like Colombia have also addressed challenges of technical literacy by working through the Ministry of ICT to provide digital literacy trainings to citizens around the country.


[1] Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. Official Journal L 145 , 31/05/2001 P. 0043 – 0048, 3a.

[2] W3C, or the World Wide Web Consortium, is the primary international standards organization for the World Wide Web. For information on W3C standards, see their website at http://www.w3.org/standards/. Accessed 6/26/2012.

[3] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §1.1d, 5.1, 5.2, 5.4.

[4] USAID Namibia, Accountability of Parliament, 28 Aug 2006. http://transition.usaid.gov/na/so3.htm. Accessed on 6/12/2012.

[5] Africa4All, Parliament of Namibia, http://www.africa4all-project.eu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10&Itemid=3. Accessed on 6/12/2012.

Sec. 38. Guaranteeing Citizen Privacy

Parliamentary websites shall have a clear and concise privacy policy to let citizens know how their personal information is being used. Parliament shall not employ membership or registration requirements that restrict public access to information on parliamentary websites or permit the tracking of personally identifiable information without explicit consent.

Because parliamentary information ultimately belongs to the public, citizens have a right to access this information in an environment free of discrimination or fear of discrimination. While it is common for websites to collect limited user information, parliamentary websites should restrict the collection of personal information to ensure that citizens’ right to this information is respected. Privacy policies should be clearly and concisely stated on parliamentary websites so that users know what information is being collected and how it may be used.

As the World e-Parliament Report 2008 explains, “[p]rivacy and security are essential elements in ensuring the integrity of parliamentary transparency and guaranteeing the rights of citizens to confidential communication. These requirements cannot be overlooked and their importance cannot be underestimated… Citizens must be assured that communications sent to their representatives, along with information about themselves, remain confidential if they so wish.”[1] The World e-Parliament Report 2010 reports, in its survey of a majority of the world’s parliaments, that 27% of parliamentary websites contain a written privacy policy.[2]   The Sunlight Foundation defines non-discriminatory access to data as the ability for any person to “access the data at any time without having to identify him/herself or provide any justification for doing so.” Barriers to accessing this information can include registration or membership requirements as well as “the use of 'walled garden', which is when only some applications are allowed access to data.”[3]  A WBI report on access to information echoes the idea that “no one should have to state reason for their request for information.”[4]

According to the privacy policy adopted by the Legislature of Liberia, “The Legislature believes people have the right to know the type of information the Legislature collects, how it is protected and used, and the circumstances under which it may be disclosed. For easy access, this Privacy Policy Statement is posted in the page footer on the homepage, all internal website pages and at every point where personally identifiable information may be requested.”[5] The Brazilian House of Representatives standard states that data shall be available to all without registration and that “the data are not subject to any regulation of copyrights, patents, intellectual property or trade secrets. Reasonable restrictions relating to privacy, security and access privileges may be allowed.”[6] 


[1] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliaments Report 2008, IPU-UNDESA, p. 17.

[2] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliaments Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 81.

[3] Sunlight Foundation, Ten Principles for Opening up Government Information, 2012, http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/documents/ten-open-data-principles/. Accessed, 5/14/2012.

[4] Toby Mendel. Parliament and Access to Information: Working for Transparent Governance, CPA-WBI, §4.1.

[5] Website of the Legislature of Liberia, http://legislature.gov.lr/privacy-policy. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Dados Abertos da Camara dos Deputados (Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies), 2011, p. 2.

Sec. 39. Releasing Information in Non-Proprietary Formats

Parliaments shall give preference to the use of non-proprietary, free and open software applications in digitally releasing parliamentary information.

Releasing information in proprietary formats may prevent citizens from accessing information in ways that allow reuse. According to standards adopted Transparency International Georgia and affirmed by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-proprietary application is “one which is not subject to intellectual property controls in any country, and for which documents defining the format's structure are freely available. HTML and XML are examples of open formats.”  Parliaments should use these simple formats over formats “such as PDF or OOXML (OOXML is commonly known as the MS Office .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx formats)” that are proprietary and not easy to re-use.[1] 

In data standards recently adopted by the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil, it is required that “data are available in a format over which no entity has exclusive control.”[2] The government of the UK, in their commitments to the Open Government Partnership, has endorsed this standard and pledged to create a licensing model, the Open Government License, that “facilitates the use and re-use of a broad range of public sector information. The license covers any information that an Information Provider and/or rights owner offers for re-use under its terms and conditions,” which can also be used with other models such as Creative Commons and Open Data Commons.[3] Similarly, the Parliament of New Zealand is committed to using non-proprietary applications, adopting as a standard that “data and information released in proprietary formats are also released in open, non-proprietary formats. Digital rights technologies are not imposed on materials made available for re-use.”[4] 

The use of proprietary applications not only constrains citizens from proper access to parliamentary information, it also imposes unnecessary cost on parliaments. A report on information and communication technologies by the European Parliament’s OPPD explains that “[d]ocuments prepared in proprietary formats, that is, formats that can only be used with particular software or specific hardware constrain the options available for managing them, limit the capacity for meeting future requirements and ultimately cost more money to maintain.”[5]


[1] Transparency International Georgia, Ten Open Data Guidelines, http://transparency.ge/en/ten-open-data-guidelines. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[2] Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Dados Abertos da Camara dos Deputados (Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies), 2011, p. 2.

[3] Open Government Partnership, UK Country Commitments,  http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries/united-kingdom. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[4] Joshua Tauberer, Open Government Data, April 2012, Chapter 5. http://opengovdata.io/2012-02/page/7-5/new-zealand-data-and-information-management-principles. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[5] OPPD, Information and Communications Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 53.

Sec. 40. Allowing Downloadability for Reuse

Parliamentary information shall be easily downloadable, in bulk, and well-documented to allow for easy reuse for multiple purposes, as well as in bulk.

As parliaments increasingly use the Internet to release information, it must be able to be downloadable to able to be reused. Bulk downloading allows for parliamentary information to be presented in ways that enhance and enrich understanding of that information, which can contribute to citizen participation in government. The Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites call specifically for countries to provide on their parliament’s website the ability for “high speed downloading of parliamentary files.”[1] As described by  the European Parliament’s OPPD, “Because a multiplicity of voices is generally a positive attribute in a democracy, parliaments should facilitate this development by making legislative information available in standard formats which are easily downloadable.”[2] 

The World e-Parliament Report 2010 survey of democratic parliaments reports that 44% currently offer document downloads in open formats and that 30% were planning or considering doing it.[3] The report describes the ability to download parliamentary data in bulk as a crucial step to allow data to be “incorporated into systems developed by others.” Standards for open government data established by Transparency International Georgia also note specifically that “bulk downloads should be made available via protocols such as FTP or rsync.”[4]  In April 2012, at a meeting of Speakers of parliaments of the European Union, including the President of the European Parliament, the Speakers formally called for the adoption of internationally agreed upon open standards to favor the reuse of public data.[5] In Italy, the Senate’s XML-based system allows citizens to download custom-made e-books of parliamentary information, including agendas, bills, reports, non-legislative related documents, and other materials.[6]

These parliamentary developments track those for governmental data more generally. Mexico, in its commitments to the Open Government Partnership, has pledged to work to release data in raw format, committing to “strive to promote the integration of processes related to digital services and the use of common platforms and information systems in order to foster the use of raw databases by citizens.”[7] The OECD reports that 56% of member countries publish administrative data sets, and that 53% have established laws or policies that require electronic information to be published in open formats that allow for re-use and data manipulation. OECD’s Government at a Glance report from 2011 explains, “Countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States are providing access to public data in a reusable format through a central website (e.g. data.gov), and other countries (such as Chile and Spain) have also taken steps in this direction.”[8] 


[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, p.14.

[2] OPPD, Information and Communications Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 16.

[3] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 65.

[4]Transparency International Georgia, Ten Open Data Guidelines, http://transparency.ge/en/ten-open-data-guidelines. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[5] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, http://www.ictparliament.org/node/4707. Accessed 5/12/2012.

[6] Mauro Fioroni - ICT Dept., Senato della Repubblica, XML-based document processing in the Italian Senate –An Overview, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament Meeting, Washington, D.C., February 27-29, 2012. Available at: http://www.ictparliament.org/attachements/XMLmeeting/Day2B4-Fioroni.pdf 

[7] Open Government Partnership, Mexico: Country Commitments, http://www.opengovpartnership.org/countries/mexico. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] OECD, Government at a Glance 2011, p. 203.

Sec. 41. Facilitating Easy and Stable Mechanisms for Finding Information

Given the amount of information that is often made available by parliaments, the ability of users to search easily and quickly for relevant information is a necessity. Parliaments should create searchable databases of past and current parliamentary information enabling both simple and complex searches using appropriate metadata to make it as easy as possible for citizens to quickly find desired information. Information should be available in a location that remains constant over time, for instance on a webpage with a persistent URL.

To ensure that citizens are able to access information, parliaments should create searchable databases of current and past information.  This information ought to be searchable through both simple and advanced searches that help citizens find the information that they are looking for, even when their knowledge is incomplete. The Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites recommends that parliamentary websites have “a searchable database of past and current parliamentary action, which can be used to find all relevant information, to search for major elements of action, and sort results by various criteria, in a way that meets the needs of parliamentary staff and citizens and is understandable to all.”[1] To ensure that parliamentary information can be accessed permanently, parliaments should ensure that URLs, or web addresses, persist unchanged, so that they can be linked to by external sites.  

 

Not all search functions are equal. The use of robust metadata enhances discovery of documents and related documentation that help one understand the information they are searching for and its context. Metadata is commonly described as “data about data,” and includes, but is not limited to, basic reference information, such as that contained in a card catalogue at a library, and administrative information, like when and how the document was created or has undergone changes. As explained by the Open Knowledge Foundation, “Metadata standards exist for many areas of activity, including archiving, the arts, biology, education, geographic data, government, social sciences, linguistics, libraries, media, and science. The commonly agreed upon standards for these fields allow data to be classified in a way that makes them easier to describe, locate, retrieve and manage.”[2] By creating common data and metadata models, information released by parliaments “can easily be cited and cross-referenced either by other Parliaments/courts or by other users” making it “possible to search across the document repositories of multiple Parliaments/courts in a consistent and effective way.”[3] In addition to use of metadata, parliaments may also make information more easily accessible by making greater use of microformats “so that information intended for end-users (such as contact information, geographic coordinates, calendar events, and the like) can be automatically processed by software.”[4] Akoma Ntoso provides a framework for standardizing metadata across legal documents.[5]

Currently, 81% of parliaments use search engines “that can serve the needs of both members and citizens, at both the beginning and advanced levels.”[6] In Bulgaria “where all draft laws could be searched by several criteria – keyword, date of filing, who filed them, reporting committee and code number.”[7] The Chamber of Deputies in Italy enhances searchability by facilitating semantic interoperability of documents using Resource Description Framework (RDF), a standardized model for helping to describe documents and the relationship between them.[8] 


[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §3.1.

[2] Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Foundation, Beyond Access: The Right to (Re)Use Public Information, 7 Jan 2011, p. 20.

[3] Giovanni Sartor, Legal Informatics and Management of Legislative Documents, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, January 2008, pp. 40-41.

[4] Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Foundation, Beyond Access: The Right to (Re)Use Public Information, 7 Jan 2011, p. 20.

[5] Fabio Vitali, Metadata in Akoma Ntoso: an Introduction, Africa i-Parliaments, http://www.parliaments.info/downloads/07%20Fabio%20Vitali%20-%20Metadata%20in%20Akoma%20Ntoso%20-%20an%20introduction.pdf. Accessed 5/15/2012.

[6] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 63.

[7] Center for Liberal Strategies, Open Parliaments: Transparency and Accountability of Parliaments in South-East Europe, p. 14.

[8] Resource Description Framework, http://www.w3.org/RDF/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 42. Hyperlinking Related Information

Parliaments shall seek to improve the ability of citizens to find relevant parliamentary information by hyperlinking parliamentary information to other related information, for example, by hyperlinking references in a bill history to earlier versions of the law, to relevant committee reports, to expert testimony, to sponsored amendments and to the portions of the Hansard that contain the record of parliamentary debate on the relevant piece of legislation.

Legislative information is only comprehensible if accompanied by relevant background and contextual information. A law, for instance, can often only be understood in the context of other laws.  As the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament’s 2010 World e-Parliament Report notes, “To understand the status and meaning of a bill, members and citizens need the associated reports prepared by the committees, subject experts and others; descriptions of all the actions taken on the legislation; amendments proposed and their status; links to parliamentary debate and votes on the bill, and other related material.”[1] Parliaments must enhance access to the context of their work for parliamentarians and citizens alike.  

 

According to the World e-Parliament Report 2010, 55% of parliaments report that proposed legislation is linked to related documentation broadly, with some parliaments choosing to hyperlink to more information than others. For example, only 27% linked information on committee hearings to proposed legislation, while 56% had committee reports linked to the relevant piece of legislation. Thirty-three percent of parliaments report that they link bills to summary explanations of the legislation. Over time, trends show that the hyperlinking among documents by parliaments is increasing.[2] The report explains, “More work need[s] to be done to link legislation to other related documents that could assist the user in obtaining a more complete representation of the information relevant to specific bills under consideration. When links from proposed legislation to related documents were provided, they were most often to plenary debate on the bill, relevant laws and statutes, and committee reports about the legislation.”[3] While governments and parliaments should explore ways to further hyperlink relevant bits of data, as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s report Beyond Access notes, “these future possibilities should not impede the release of current government datasets.”[4]

 

As mentioned in relation to provision 41 above, the Chamber of Deputies in Italy uses RDF as a standard for linking documents.[5] The Brazilian government, including the Congress, has developed the LexML platform to “unify, organize and facilitate access to legislative and legal information made available in digital form...” Part of LexML’s work includes developing “a linker application that will automatically insert links to reference laws and documents in legislative texts.”[6] Akoma Ntoso provides a standard for efficient linking of documentation across parliaments and governments.  Some PMOs, including Regards Citoyens in France, have begun to link legislative information to enhance citizen access. However, the absence of open and structured information from parliaments links the ability of external groups to assist in linking documents.


[1] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 60.

[2] Ibid., pp. 56-61.

[3] Ibid., p. 51.

[4] Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Foundation, Beyond Access: The Right to (Re)Use Public Information, 7 Jan 2011, p. 36.

[5] Resource Description Framework, http://www.w3.org/RDF/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 100.

Sec. 43. Enabling Use of Alert Services

Where possible, parliament shall provide citizens the ability to subscribe to services to alert them of certain types of parliamentary developments through the use of email, SMS text, or other technologies.

It is important to keep citizens apprised of parliamentary developments as they occur, and is part of parliament’s responsibility of parliaments to provide information in a timely manner (provision 11). This can be done effectively by using alert services using mobile phones or email. The IPU recommends parliaments use alert services: “Alerting services, such as email, RSS, or other appropriate technologies that enable members and the public to be informed about important parliamentary actions such as the introduction of, and changes to, the status and text of legislation; members’ activities; committee activities; oversight and scrutiny activities; and plenary activities.”[1] The OPPD also cites alert services as a crucial modern technology tool that parliaments increasingly use to enhance openness.[2]

 

The World e-Parliament Report 2010 survey found that 47% of parliaments currently have some form of alert service.[3] In the United Kingdom, parliament offers an email alert system to notify constituents of important events.[4] Civil society has become involved in this effort as well. TheyWorkForYou.com, a website created by mySociety, provides email alerts to constituents when, for instance, their member of parliament is participating in debate on a key issue or casts a vote.[5] PMG in South Africa, PRS Legislative Research in India, and GovTrack in the United States also all provide an updated feed on their website detailing any changes that occur in the status of bills in their respective parliaments and provide email alert services as well.[6]  The Sunlight Foundation has developed the Congress application that allows citizens to receive updates on congressional developments on Android phones.[7] While many parliaments may view access to parliamentary information through mobile devices as a luxury, parliaments can enable outside developers to create such applications ad hoc by simply providing access to parliamentary information in structured and open formats, like XML.


[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §3.3.

[2] OPPD, Information and Communications Technologies in Parliament: Tools for Democracy, European Parliament, August 2010, p. 17.

[3] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 64.

[4] Website of the UK Parliament, http://www.parliament.uk/site-information/email-alerts/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] TheyWorkForYou.Com, Keeping Tabs on the UK’s Parliaments & Assemblies, http://www.TheyWorkForYou.com. Accesed 6/10/2012.

[6] For PMG, see: http://www.pmg.org.za for PRS, see: http://www.prsindia.org; for GovTrack, see: http://www.govtrack.us.

[7] Sunlight Foundation, Congress for your Android Phone!, http://sunlightfoundation.com/projects/congress-for-android/. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Sec. 44. Facilitating Two-Way Communication

Parliament shall endeavor to use interactive technology tools to foster the ability of citizens to provide input on legislation and parliamentary activity, and to communicate with members or parliamentary staff.

Interaction between citizens and their representatives enhances parliamentary work.  As a result, many parliaments are exploring web-based means of facilitating citizen engagement.  New technologies can complement in-person interaction between citizens and representatives by allowing citizens to provide comments or annotations in the text of draft legislation, or by providing citizens the opportunity to submit letters or questions to representatives in a public forum. Technologies can empower citizens who lack the financial means or time to travel great distances to their parliament, while they also allow for citizens to participate at their own convenience.

The World e-Parliament Report 2010 suggests that parliaments employ “all available tools, including new media and mobile technologies, to provide citizens with improved access to the work of parliament and means of participation in the political dialogue.”[1] New social media tools, including Facebook and Twitter, along with email, mobile devices, polling and other technologies, provide parliaments with a variety of means to engage citizens and receive feedback on parliamentary work. The World e-Parliament Report’s survey of parliaments concluded that 88% of parliaments currently offer the public email contact information and that 78% of parliaments report that members utilize their personal email to communicate directly with citizens.[2] However, just 18% of parliaments utilize online discussion groups to discuss legislative action.[3] 

The IPU details specific prescriptions for parliaments to increase their ability to interact with citizens.  Recommendations include using email, blogs or interactive fora, e-petitions, online polling, and the testing of new technologies as they are developed.[4] The European Parliament utilizes Facebook to interact with citizens. In South Africa, the “Taking Parliament to the People” program brings interactive debates to constituents via video or teleconferencing. In Namibia, the “Listen Loud Campaign Project” utilizes phone-based opinion polls to receive citizen feedback. In Chile, citizens can act as a ‘virtual senator’ and provide comments to a proposed bill.[5] Brazil’s parliament operates constituent call centers, an online e-democracy program to engage citizens directly in the lawmaking process (e-Democracia project), and a Committee for Participatory Legislation which allows citizens and organizations to submit proposals directly to lawmakers.[6] The e-Democracia website allowed for 30% of a bill on youth to be written by citizens participating online, an example of citizens receiving a concrete result from their involvement.[7] The Uganda Parliament is introducing the USpeak system for receiving, organizing and analyzing citizen input via SMS. In Portugal, Parliament facilitates an online discussion forum that is open to the public and centered around education issues, as well as a blog structure for members of parliament.[8] The House of Commons in Canada allows and encourages its individual members to utilize social media applications, including on mobile devices. For example, more than two thirds of the 308 members of the House of Commons are on Twitter.[9]


[1] Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, p. 165.

[2] Ibid., p. 26.

[3] Ibid., p. 25.

[4] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §4.1-2.

[5] All examples from Global Centre for ICT in Parliament, World e-Parliament Report 2010, IPU-UNDESA, pp. 34, 26, 43, 45, respectively.

[6] Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Dados Abertos da Camara dos Deputados (Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies), 2011, p. 2.

[7] Faria, Cristiano, Can People Help Legislators Make Better Laws? Brazil Shows How, techPresident, 29 Apr 2010. http://techpresident.com/user-blog/can-people-help-legislators-make-better-laws-brazil-shows-how. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] University of Westminster, Parliamentary Web Presence: A Comparative Review, pp. 10-11, published in the Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on e-Government (ICEG 2006), 12-13 October 2006, p.10.

[9] Marc Bosc, Deputy Clerk of the House of Commons, Canada, The Evolving Concept of Transparency in Legislatures: The House of Commons, Global Centre for ICT in Parliament Meeting, Washington, D.C. February 27-29, 2012, p.11. http://www.ictparliament.org/attachements/XMLmeeting/Day1_Bosc.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.