A group of do-gooders has picked Maryland as its test case for trying to make state and local government more transparent and participatory using technology, and they've already made some inroads in improving the way state and local laws are published on the web. But the source of this effort may surprise some in this deep blue state: Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who serves as one of President Barack Obama's chief antagonists in Congress.
Mr. Issa, in addition to pursing the president in his role as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Committee, is a technophile who made a fortune in the car alarm business and once served as chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association. He co-founded the OpenGov Foundation in 2011 in an effort to develop software to help citizens become more directly involved in the lawmaking process, and the group is now run day-to-day by former Capitol Hill staffers.
They wanted to concentrate their efforts in one state to start, and they picked Maryland, both for its proximity to Washington and because it is neither at the forefront of open government technology nor hopelessly behind. To get the ball rolling, Mr. Issa asked his frequent debating partner on the oversight committee, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, to meet with the group. Mr. Cummings thought the initiative was a great idea, and he offered to make introductions to the governor's office, leaders in the legislature and others.
Their first tangible success here was to produce an easy-to-use website for the state code, and later to do the same thing for Baltimore's charter and code. That information has been online for years but in formats that made navigation and searching for information difficult. "Unless you were a really, really hard-core government geek, it was in a format that was not easy to work with," says Chris Tonjes, the director of the Mayor's Office of Information Technology. He says there's great potential for further collaborations to give people the tools to understand and shape their government. "We don't know everything here," he says. "Allowing other people to participate and to have outside groups shape our priorities really helps."
And Marylanders are evidently eager for those kinds of opportunities. OpenGov released the results of a survey last week showing that large majorities of Maryland voters are dissatisfied with the level of information they now get about state government and would like better advance notice about proposed laws and taxes that affect them.
OpenGov suggests an easy solution: Politicians should adopt social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which are free and already in use by most of their constituents, and those who do should stop using them to post endless photos of ribbon cuttings and start telling people what they're actually doing. If voters know when their senator or delegate is working on an amendment to a bill they're interested in, they have a chance to give meaningful and constructive feedback.
A more ambitious solution is software that OpenGov has tested in Congress that makes it easier for people to see bills as they are introduced and marked up and provides tools for them to make comments or suggestions on how the proposed laws should be changed. The foundation is developing a Maryland version of the software, called Madison, that it hopes to have in place when the General Assembly returns in the fall.
Annapolis has not always been receptive to outsiders telling it how to do its business. But lawmakers should see the advantages here. When constituents want to participate in the process now, they can hold rallies outside the State House or pack legislative hearing rooms until late in the night, but more often than not, that produces nothing but frustration for citizens and legislators alike. There must be a better way, and we hope lawmakers will be receptive to OpenGov's efforts to find it.