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6/20/2011
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Congress Mulls How iPads, XML Can Cut Costs

Experts suggest ways Congress can use smartphones and other technologies to cut down on paper and boost collaboration.

Obama's Tech Tools
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The House of Representatives is considering a number of ways to use technology to modernize how Congress shares and delivers information, including increasing the use of smartphones to handle the mountains of paperwork that lawmakers deal with every day.

The Committee on House Administration's subcommittee on oversight, during a hearing last week, polled a number of stakeholders about ways it can improve how it shares information.

With all of the technology available to lawmakers, it's high time Congress considers better ways to leverage IT to streamline collaboration and cut costs by reducing the amount of paper it produces, among other things.

"In today's environment we have no choice but to cut long-term costs, eliminate unnecessary printing, adapt to the electronic delivery of information, and bring more transparency, accessibility, and accuracy to the legislative process," said Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., chairman of the oversight subcommittee.

He said that paper-based requirements for data--such as deciding which information can be shared entirely electronically and which still require paper dissemination--have not been "seriously or properly reformed or updated in decades," not since the Government Printing Office's Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993.

"Now is the time to re-evaluate and revisit these laws and bring our information delivery system into this 21st century," Gingrey said.

Congress members already are using smartphones and tablets to do more of their work on the chamber floors, something one of the hearing's witnesses, Morgan Reed, executive director for the Association for Competitive Technology, noted in his testimony.

"This institution has undergone many changes in recent years and the decision to allow the use of iPads on the House floor and in official settings reflects the growing influence of these devices have on our everyday lives," he said.

Reed said that an obvious benefit of these devices is to reduce the amount of paper the members of Congress use. But more importantly, lawmakers should consider how to make it more feasible to leverage these and other technologies "to conduct official business in a way that's more efficient, informative, and transformative to the way members of Congress do the work of representing their constituents," he said.

Apart from devices, there are a host of other technology options available to make this a reality, said witness Thomas Bruce, co-founder and director of Cornell law school's Legal Information Institute.

He suggested several collaboration options for Congress, including the use of smart XML-based word processing, better document management and status tracking, and leveraging smart tools that allow lawmakers to see summary views of legislation through an online dashboard.

To implement these new technologies, however, Bruce said the House needs to get its data in order, which it can do by maintaining compliance with XML-based standards, ensuring the quality of its data, and creating systems that accurately archive legislative information over an extended period of time.

The feds are already are leveraging technologies such as XML to create more efficiency. For example, the GPO phased out a nearly 17-year-old online document-access system in favor of an XML-based next-generation system for providing online access to official federal government publications.

Still, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who also testified at the hearing, cautioned lawmakers to embrace digital innovations carefully because not every member of Congress is ready to give up the ease and convenience of paper just yet.

"I believe every member can support moving towards a more paperless Congress as technology allows," he said. "However, we're just not there yet."

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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