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Legislative Branch Support agency Information
All Legislative Branch agency publications should be included in the system with links among their individual reports, and, when appropriate, between them and specific pieces of legislation.
Executive Branch AND Judicial Branch Information
Congress should have reliable, timely access to all Executive and Judicial Branch information relevant to its work. The key issue is establishing priorities as well as taking advantage of cost-effective opportunities. There has been a significant growth in Executive Branch information accessible through open architecture, but access to Judicial Branch information, while improving, is still primarily available through modern technology from commercial vendors. Beyond the issue of access is the problem of linking to data sources as easily as possible. This is another task that can be made less costly through the establishment of data standards.
Finally, it is important to note, given the trends in federal/state relations, that information by and about state policies, plans, legislation, and programs will become increasingly important. This is yet another area where commercial systems tend to have the most advanced capabilities, although many states are now beginning to make their official publications available on the Internet.
DATA SOURCES: COMMERCIAL AND OTHER NON-GOVERNMENT
A number of commercial companies have developed good systems for providing access to legislative information. Developed in the 1980s, after the congressionally funded House, Senate, and Library systems had demonstrated their value, these systems have evolved to serve a growing pay-for-service market. In certain areas, such as committee schedules and activities, political analysis, newspaper stories, case law, and the U.S. Code, they provide more upto-date information than any of the congressional systems. Many congressional offices as well as the support agencies (GAO, CBO, and CRS) have found various commercial services essential for performing their work. Many of these companies also rely heavily on congressionally produced data (e.g., the text of bills, committee reports, etc.) obtained from GPO, to which they add their own value-added services. A detailed comparative matrix of legislative information available from congressional and from commercial sources is available from CRS upon request.
"The title of the working document is WHERE TO FIND INFORMATION IN CONGRESSIONAL DATA SYSTEMS. This is a working document updated annually (June 1995 was the most recent update). It is not a formal CRS product.
For several years, the House and Senate have, under their own separate arrangements, purchased some of the services of these companies to supplement the information provided by congressional systems. The House has tended to purchase selected data elements and integrate them with its own MIN and ISIS system. For several years, the Senate has authorized offices to choose from among several vendors who offer a variety of services. Many Senate offices use these services extensively.
One option for Congress to consider would be to solicit bids from commercial companies to provide its legislative information system entirely through contract. It is impossible to know how much this option might cost without a formal RFP process, although it is important to note that even under such an arrangement, Congress would still have to perform some of the most costly components of such a system, including collecting, verifying, and distributing basic information such as bills, reports, etc. However, there are a number of reasons for suggesting that the legislative information system could take advantage of the value provided by commercial companies without relying on them entirely or exclusively.
The Library recommends instead that the "core legislative information" of Congress should be compiled and made available to its Members and its committees by its own offices and staff through the legislative information system proposed in this plan. The Library suggests the term "core legislative information" to refer to those basic congressional documents and activities that record the fundamental work of the Congress. It includes the text of bills and amendments; committee reports, hearings, prints, and documents; the Congressional Record; committee and floor actions on bills; conference and White House action on legislation; the resulting statutes and U.S. Code; rules of procedure; etc. This list is not comprehensive, but it is likely that there would be general agreement on the core legislative information of the Congress. By contrast, commercial companies provide political analysis and commentary, "insider" information, related newspaper stories, magazine and journal articles, case law, etc. which are also valuable to Congress.
The system developed to provide core legislative information, as proposed in this plan, should be based on an open architecture that encourages commercial providers to continue to offer their services to Congress on a competitive, value added basis. In this environment, Members and committees would be free to purchase the systems and services that were of use to them, and which would complement the legislative information system proposed in this plan. Ideally this would maximize the value received from the commercial services without paying a second time for the information available through the congressional system.
The Library recommends that Congress produce and distribute its core data for several reasons. Continuity and reliability would be ensured. Guaranteed access to the legislative information of Congress should not be dependent on continued success in the marketplace. Commercial companies must also balance the demands of their various customers. Congress, on the other, should have
complete control of the collection, validation, and distribution processes for its own data.
Library staff discussed these proposals with several of the commercial companies that provide legislative information services, including CQ, Legislate, Lexis/Nexis, and West Publishing. While the Library would not presume to represent the official views of these companies, several themes emerged in the discussions. There appeared to be a consensus that the basic proposals were sound, and that Congress should maintain and provide access to its own core legislative information, although all companies reserved final judgment until more details were known. These companies would benefit to the extent that the congressional system improved the timeliness, accuracy, and utility of the core information which they all use in their systems. Some expressed interest in exploring the options for linking their systems or their data to the congressional system, provided that such action provided no threat to the licensed arrangements under which their systems and data were provided.
In addition, some noted the benefit of possibly having a more consistent approach to the procurement of services for the entire Legislative Branch. Historically, the House, Senate, and support agencies have each taken a different approach to this process. This contrasts with some of the benefits that have resulted from the work of the Legislative Branch Telecommunications Network team (LBTN) in procuring long distance services for the Legislative Branch. Beyond that, there could be value in developing data standards in an open environment in which companies, to the extent of their interest, would have an opportunity to participate or comment.
The Library believes that its recommendations would create a framework that would enable Congress to maintain control over, and have improved access to its core legislative data, while at the same time continuing to benefit from the services of private companies, who could offer their products in a supportive, but competitive environment.
'An example from the experience of the Congressional Research Service is illustrative. For a number of years during the 1980s, the Service purchased a database of abstracts of the Congressional Record, before the full text of the Record was available online. The index terms used in this file were based in part on the requirements of CRS and in part on the requirements of other purchasers, often lobbyists, whose views of what was important in the Record was not always as objective and as comprehensive as CRS required.
"This comparison is not meant to imply that only one vendor should be selected to provide this type of information. The ranges of services in the marketplace for legislative information is quite different and usefully diverse compared to the range of services provided on the long distance market.
In general, the term search engines refers to the software programs which collectively work together to support the indexing and retrieving of data. The explosive growth of computer generated data and the creation of nationwide data networks have lead to concurrent growth in the technology of search engines during the past several years. Numerous private companies, research institutes, and public sector organizations have become engaged in developing products for the search engine market. This is likely to be an evolving and continually improving field of technology for several years. By comparison, the systems now in operation in the Senate, House, and Library were created over 20 years ago and had to be built almost entirely "from scratch." It is these systems, sometimes referred to as "legacy systems" which the new legislative information system will eventually replace, once it can provide the same data and system capabilities, or comparable functionality. While the House, Senate, and Library have continually improved their systems within the limits of the original technology used in their construction, it is clear that to achieve the goals of the new legislative system, it is necessary to build it with today's tools, which have been developed from the beginning to leverage the advantages of distributed processing, graphical user interfaces, and high performance, integrated communication systems.
The capabilities of today's search engines vary depending upon whether they are constructed as complete and independent systems or as "tool kits" which skilled programmers can use to construct a complete system. Prices vary accordingly, and the most cost-effective choice depends upon a variety of factors such as the skill and experience of inhouse staff, the projected need for continuing development, the specific capabilities required, etc. The House, Senate, GPO, and Library computer centers have each begun to use some of these new retrieval systems to meet several of their unique institutional requirements.
One of the most important advantages of the technology now being brought into the Legislative Branch is that it is built upon open rather than proprietary standards. In a distributed technical environment, open standards are critical because they make it possible to integrate systems so that duplication of effort can be avoided. At the same time, open standards make it unnecessary to require that each technical organization utilize the same search engine or data collection system, so long as they can all meet the essential requirements for interoperability. In today's competitive market environment, this principle is especially important because it allows the Congress to continue to take advantage of technical and price competition as such opportunities arise without having to insist that every organization within the Legislative Branch acquire and use the same software at the same time. This promotes continued competition among commercial companies in developing technology that meets Congress' requirements.
Diversity and competition in the field of search engines is also important because of the range of requirements inherent in certain kinds of data and among certain kinds of users. Some systems may be optimized for searching and
displaying text, others may be optimized for searching and displaying video. Similarly, some systems may have advantages for novice users, others for expert searchers. Because the legislative information system will have to accommodate data from a variety of sources, the system would have to accommodate the needs of staff who might be using a variety of search engines. The Library recommends that the Working Group form a subteam to address issues related to the integration of search engines, to continually assess the state-of-the-art in this technical field, and to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the search engines used in Congress' legislative information system.
The user interface is designed with software that enables the user to learn what is available in the system, formulate specific requests for information, receive and display the results of a search, and perform other tasks, such as storing the retrieved data, sorting it, sending it to someone else, and incorporating it into another document. With the advent of the graphical user interface (GUI), there have been tremendous improvements in interface software which have made it much easier to understand and use systems, and enable many more tasks to be performed.
A well designed graphical user interface is a critical element of the legislative information system because it will allow staff to find information without having to know where it is stored or what search commands to use. For example, the interface would enable the user to request the official electronic version of the bill as it passed the House, which might be stored at GPO, and the schedule for the markup on that bill in a Senate committee, which might be stored on a committee server. The user would not have to know how to request that data technically, nor know where it was stored. The interface would take care of these tasks.
Interfaces can also be customized to meet the needs of different types of users (expert, novice, congressional, public, etc.) at a relatively small cost compared with alternatives such as building a different system to meet the needs of various users. A building metaphor may help to illustrate this point. The collection and preparation of data, and the design of a search engine can be compared to the foundation, walls, roof, plumbing, and wiring of a house. The user interface is analogous to the windows of that house, both in terms of its cost relative to the rest of the house, and in the sense that it allows different views into the data that resides in the house. This flexibility of interface software is an important asset because of the range of user needs. For example, the staff of the House and Senate bill status offices are expert users of legislative retrieval systems and have different requirements from the newly arrived legislative correspondent or the professional staff member on the committee.
Another advantage of the flexibility and power of user interface software is that it can manage access to licensed information. For example, if the House and Senate continue to license information from commercial sources under