Wednesday, September 01, 2010

what does law.gov mean to you?

Herein is my response to the question what does law.gov mean to you?

I am an IT architect and a builder of legislative systems more so than a direct legal publisher. Having said that, I have worked with most of the worlds legal publishing entities at some time or other over the last twenty years. My current focus is creating legislative systems for legislatures - mostly in the U.S.A. - the content our systems produce is then published by legislatures themselves and also by third party publishers.

I am a technologist first and foremost. I recently started blogging about the KLISS eDemocracy system here in Kansas in the hope that the technical details I am blogging will help other technologists to understand the legislative domain better and thus help create a more informed tech community around one of the most important aspects of any democracy.

I agree with pretty much everything Ed Walters said about the AOL Moment that is currently happening in the legal publishing industry. I also also agree with pretty much everything Carl Malamud says about the desirability of free, unfettered access to authenticated, machine readable primary legal materials in the context of the law.gov initiative.

For me however, the most interesting vista that law.gov opens up is the potential for the most significant event in the evolution of democracy since the funeral oration of Pericles 2400 years ago. For the first time in human history, we now have all the technological pieces we need to bring participation in the democratic process to levels not seen since ancient Greece when everyone could literally congregate in the same place. To quote Don Heiman, CITO for the Kansas State Legislature:

    "Anything, including law making, you do in the presence of government you can do electronically without regards to wall or clocks provided it is easy to use and free to citizens."

There are no longer any technical reasons why we cannot publish the public activities of a legislature in real-time, or have statute databases codified on the fly, or provide direct visibility of what the impact of a proposed modification to the law would look like before it gets voted on. No technical reason why we cannot allow citizens to not only observe, but also participate in the making of law *as it is being made* - not just see the results ex post facto.

It is a lot of work for sure but it is only work at this point. No new technology breakthroughs are required. What needs to happen next (and there are signs it is happening) is for the world of law and the world of software development to both come to the realization that they are both in the same business from content management and publishing perspectives. I really believe that law is source code in the sense that the disciplines and techniques that have been perfected in the software development world have a tremendous amount to offer those who manage corpora of legal texts.

I look forward to the day when we speak of, for example "release 7.8a (Rev 456422) of the consolidated statutes of Tumbolia (MD5: checksum d03730288a7f0278e36afc82f220ddab)."

I look forward to the day when we can jump into a time machine and look at Rev 674245 of the 2011 Legislative Biennium Corpus for Tumbolia in order to better understand the legislative intent of an amendatory bill.

I look forward to the day when we can look at the laws of Tumbolia, as they were at noon Wed, 20 Jan 2010 in order to present attorneys and the courts with a complete view of what the law said at the time some contested action took place.

I look forward to the day when we can detail edit-by-edit how the consolidated statutes of Tumbolia came to be what they are by starting with the Constitution of Tumbolia from 1899 and rolling forward changes to its statute from its session laws, step-by-step with all the rigor of an accounting audit trail of transaction ledgers.

I hope that the law.gov initiative heads in that direction. The http://legislation.gov.uk website clearly points the way for what is possible. Speaking as a technologist, we techies stand ready willing and able to make this happen. Is the political will there to make it happen? Is the disruption of the status quo too much too soon for such a staid and contemplative field as law and law-making? I can answer neither of these questions but I sincerely hope the answers are "yes" and "no" respectively.

The biggest threat to any democracy is a disinterested electorate. In years to come, I hope law.gov will be seen as the catalyst that re-invigorated an entire generation to engage with the democratic process. A process that too many currently feel is beyond their realm of influence. We can change that now. For our sakes and the sakes of future generations, I hope we do.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Sean, I would tend to share your enthusiasm for essentially "open sourcing" (for lack of better shorthand) the development of legislation. I wonder though, what your thoughts are on how we summarize or winnow down the flood of information involved so that people can keep up? Most voters, even those not disinterested, would tell you that they have trouble keeping up with the latest news reports, let alone getting even more information about the process. What tools can we incorporate in the process to help people get a summary view, then drill down to the details when desired?