By an odd coincidence, my interview with Joshua Tauberer, founder and operator of GovTrack, went live just as the bill I’d been tracking using that system made headlines. Had I not been doing some investigation into legislative support for alternative biomass heating systems, I’d never have known that the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 — which the President is now expected to sign into law this week, and which is generally known as the bailout for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — is also the bill that may result in tax credits for those of us in New England who’ve been investing in those heating systems.
This has been my most comprehensive attempt to open the lid of the legislative sausage factory, peer inside, and try to understand how a specific interest of mine was being processed. What I found is that, even with power tools like GovTrack and MAPLight, it’s really hard to make those connections. That’s partly because we lack good mechanisms to track the flow of bits of legislative language through an evolving assortment of bills, and to relate those fragments to the activities and interests of their sponsors.
But it’s also because a novice who tries to read and interpret this record lacks context. I had learned along the way, for example, that one of my senators cast a crucial NO on a cloture vote that would have amended the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to include $22 billion of renewable energy tax incentives — including, as one small component, the “pellet stove” provision that has now landed in the Foreclosure Act. But I wasn’t at all clear on the significance, or recent evolution, of the parliamentary maneuver known as the cloture vote.
As Mike Caulfield points out here, there’s been a recent and dramatic increase in the use of this maneuver. As a result, “what your individual Senator does on bills matters quite a lot less than you think.”
The emerging breed of Congress-tracking tools and services can’t yet capture these nuances in ways that enable an ordinary citizen, motivated by some personal interest, to dive into the process and bootstrap an understanding that will guide voting or advocacy. Recognizing this, Joshua Tauberer explains in our interview that he’s currently exploring ways to crowdsource that bootstrapping effort. So for example, the site has a feature called “Users tracking this bill are also tracking…” Because I’m tracking both H.R. 6 (Energy Independence and Security) and H.R. 3221 (Foreclosure Prevention), the connection I made between these two seemingly unrelated bills creates a link for others to follow.
As more people delve into these tools, the conversation around how our process really works can occur. And hopefully it can start to occur in channels outside the poliwonkablogosphere that I love so much but that others, well, not so much.
The first reaction to tools in the hands of novices is always that the novices don’t have the proper context. But use those tools and the context will come to you.
That statement resonates powerfully with two themes I’ve touched on before. One comes from John Willinsky, the educator, reading specialist, and open access advocate whom I encountered here, here, and here. There are only two factors that govern reading success, Willinsky says: motivation and context. To illustrate these principles, he talks about medical patients who, though they are nominally grade-8 readers, routinely surprise their doctors with grade-14 mastery of medical literature. How? When you or a loved one is sick, you’re intensely motivated to understand that literature. Yes, you initially lack context, but in the era of the Net, with the help of an ad-hoc community of others in the same situation, you can bootstrap that context.
The second resonance is with this Jeff Jonas meme: Data will find data, and relevance will find the user. I highlighted the social dimension of that idea in this essay: Data finds data, then people find people. Deepak Singh says these principles “define what the modern web is all about,” and adds that “without common data to commune around, there can be no communities.”
GovTrack is one of a number of efforts to create a framework of common data around which new political communities can form. I’ve also mentioned MAPLight, one of a number of projects funded by the Sunlight Foundation, whose chief data architect, Greg Elin, I interviewed here.
Admittedly these new services don’t yet close the gap that separates an ordinary citizen who’s motivated by a particular interest from a professional denizen of the poliwonkablogosphere. But it’s at least possible to leap across the gap, and we’re on the verge of building bridges across it.