On July 18, 2012, the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government released a beta version of the General Assembly’s next generation website for public legislative information. For now, access to it is restricted to legislators. No date has been announced for when it will be made publicly available.
The proposed website, designed by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services, is a giant leap forward in aesthetics and public usability. Most notable are the alerts that would allow the public to track items of interest, such as the posting of a hearing for a particular bill. Journalists and public policy activists will immediately recognize the value of such alerts.
Nevertheless, the proposed website has serious drawbacks. For example, there is still no provision to allow the public to track the roll call votes of legislators by legislator as opposed to by bill. Bill information is great, but in a representative democracy citizens vote for legislators, not bills.
Similarly, the data about bills available for download includes 37 machine-readable fields but no fields for legislative roll call votes. This is akin to inviting friends for dinner and setting them a beautiful table but without offering them any food to eat.
My guess is that some of the website’s best proposed features will be cut during the General Assembly’s backroom negotiations over what to keep and cut. Alternatively, one can hope that some of the most obvious and technically easy-to-fix omissions will be addressed.