Bermuda keeps an eye on legislation

New law-tracking system could serve as a model for U.S. government

A new law-tracking system that Bermuda government officials will use to monitor the evolution of legislation could serve as a model for how the U.S. government might improve efforts to record and track the status of prospective laws.

For years, open government advocates have called for the expansion of the Library of Congress' Thomas database, which offers online summaries and the full text of maturing legislation. Most experts say Thomas is good but could be better.

In Bermuda's government staffers depend on rudimentary practices for managing the work of making laws. They must call legislative officials about their bills and then record information through paper based logs. They share Microsoft Excel files or paper documents to view the development of initiatives. But that process is about to change now that Bermuda government officials have bought a $64,000 governmentwide automated bill-tracking system.

By the end of July, vendors hope to finish training employees in the Bermuda legislature and executive offices to use the Cabinet Office Legislation Tracking System (COLTS).

Legislative staffers will be able to view lists of who has not commented on legislation and send them e-mail reminders. Although this system resembles the Thomas Web site, on which people have been able to view the progress of bills for years, Bermuda officials say the two technologies serve different purposes.

Michael Oatley, director of Bermuda's Information Technology Office, said COLTS improves workflow efficiency rather than providing open access to the legislative process.

"The system is not designed to provide access to the content of the law," Oatley said. "It is designed to provide a mechanism for recording and logging progress on the work associated with devising a piece of legislation, starting with the concept and ending with an act of law."

Oatley said officials are pleased with the system and expect it to reduce the time they spend tracking bills. They will then be able to focus on the essential work of drafting, refining and checking the content of prospective legislation.

Bermuda has a public Web site where people can view the final versions of laws. But the site does not show the status of pending legislation or the history of enacted laws.

Jason Britton, a software engineer at Scientific Technologies, which developed COLTS, said residents would not be interested in viewing COLTS details on the Internet. "This is more for conversations," he said. "No one wants to read the attorney general [chamber's] drafting instructions on how to word a bill."

While Bermuda experiments with a document-management system, U.S. officials are implementing a new one in the Senate Legislative Counsel's Office.

Jim Fransen, Senate legislative counsel, said he expects a customized Documentum system to be in operation by January 2006. The system will expedite the bill preparation process. When a staffer delivers a proposed bill to a senator's office, the system logs the transaction. If the senator decides to introduce the document, the text will go to committee and the Government Printing Office.

GPO officials currently notify the Senate Legislative Counsel's Office via e-mail when a bill is introduced, and counsel office staffers record that movement in a notebook. The new system will integrate with GPO's technology and automatically create logs, ending the need for e-mail notifications or manual data entry.

Proponents of a transparent government say any life cycle management system, including Bermuda's, would help ensure access to legislation if citizens can use it. Rick Blum, director of the Freedom of Information Project at OMB Watch, said the crucial question is how such a system would link to Thomas.

"If the public can get to see strikethroughs, for example, that will make it easier for the public to understand what has been proposed," he said. "The best system would be one that is a life cycle system that involves the public. There's clearly room to improve on a good public resource. You'd have to integrate the two."

Bermuda's bill-tracking machinery

Bermuda officials hope to increase efficiency and accountability with a new governmentwide electronic legislation tracking system. Here are the technology's primary functions:

  • Search for initiatives and legislation in the system's central registry.
  • Track bills from draft to completion.
  • Edit initiatives.
  • View legislative and session schedules.
  • Send reminders requiring users' action on initiatives.
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