eGov Watch: OpenCongress.org

By Kurt Cagle
February 23, 2009

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The political process has long been a realm associated as much with back rooms and cigars as it has with helping the people within a country. Otto Bismark, the first chancellor of a unified Germany in the 19th century, famously remarked "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.", and this cynicism about the process by which laws are created has arguably become endemic within most democracies today.

Ironically, then, one of the more interesting fallouts of the abuses of power by both business and government in the last several years has been a growing sense that if the organs of government will not become more open voluntarily, then an increasingly sophisticated layer of watchdog organizations will provide this transparency for them.

OpenCongress.org, recently launched as a joint venture between the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics Foundation, OpenCongress.org brings many of the tools of social networks - blogging, comments, syndication, interest rankings, tagging, and so forth - to the process of actually creating the laws themselves.

For instance, the web designers of OpenCongress.org used one particularly innovative extension of commenting systems to make it possible to post bills that had come out of committee, and to allow people to comment not just on the bill overall, but even on specific provisions within those bills. It is perhaps debatable whether the comments themselves make that much of a difference - though I did read a couple that made me see some sense in an alternative viewpoint - but the very fact that the commentary exists in the first place means that people are reading the bills, and beginning to understand a process that, for the most part, has usually been something that took place in the background.

Beyond this superb feature, OpenCongress also provides a means to see at a glance what committees a given congressperson or senator is on, which bills they have recently sponsored, and what their voting record looks like on issues. Significantly, the site goes to great lengths to keep "politics" and editorializing out of the site - its purpose is to provide information and increase transparency into the political process rather than pushing a specific agenda.

Additionally, the visitor to the site can also see news items and blogs relevant to the representative, a breakdown of campaign contributions he or she received, lets you provide your own ratings about the particular representative, and even provides tools for comparing voting patterns of different representatives or senators, among a number of other resources.

One important lesson to be culled from this and other transparency efforts is that a participatory democracy has to be just that - participatory. All too often, people's involvement in the political process begins and ends at the ballot box (if it goes even that far), and all too many people operate upon the assumption that it is not their job or even in their interest to spend too much time at the sausage bill ... and then are surprised when a special interest lobbyist puts in provisions that impacts those people badly.

OpenCongress.org represents a new form of journalism, one that, rather than providing a particular viewpoint about legislation chooses instead to simply make the information easily and readily available and let people make their own decisions ... and act accordingly. This "crowd-sourcing" of the democratic process as a consequence will likely have profound changes upon the way that people think about how government works, and will likely serve to increase interest in and participation in that government in far more constructive ways.

Kurt Cagle is an online editor with O'Reilly Media. You can subscribe to his news feed or follow him on Twitter.


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