The Web connection

Fifteen years ago, only 11 states offered online access to information,according to a Council of State Governments report. Today, every legislaturehas a Web site with services for both staff and the public. People can lookup bills, amendments and histories, track legislation, read committee reports,check calendars and daily schedules, and find biographies of legislatorsand contact information.

The sites are increasingly informative and interactive. Live audio andvideo broadcasts via the World Wide Web have become essential in many states.According to the latest National Conference of State Legislatures statistics,17 states offer streaming video of their proceedings, while 14 states offeraudio-only Webcasts. More states are planning such offerings.

The Nevada Legislature offers a free site and a subscription site, saidAllan Smith, information systems manager. For a fee, subscribers get selectedbill tracking updates and announcements via e-mail. California, Utah andother states offer similar services.

Several legislature Web sites enable people to send comments to lawmakers.In Louisiana, citizens can comment on cutting the fat from the state budget.Florida provides a free service to monitor the activities and performanceof 300 state agencies and programs. Minnesota provides streaming video describinglegislative rules and processes.

However, a recent report by OMB Watch β€” "Plugged In, Tuning Up: An Assessmentof State Legislative Websites" β€” criticized the sites, citing navigationand design flaws, lack of important content and services, ambiguous privacypolicies and inconsistent levels of free vs. subscription-based access.

Report co-author Ryan Turner said the study was conducted through theview of a public user, giving only 10 minutes to navigate a site β€” an amountof time reflecting a market benchmark in capturing a user's attention.

"For the person coming to a legislative search engine for the firsttime, and you don't explain it, you've diminished their expectations onhow well government can serve them," he said.

Turner said such Web sites provide a valuable service, and the reportwas meant to help legislatures improve them.

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