Oireachtas opens up online

27 May 2003

Most of what has been discussed about e-government focuses on the executive branch of government and is concerned with the citizen as the consumer and the electronic delivery of government services. More radical is e-democracy. It can be defined as the use of the information and communications technology (ICT) to support the democratic process, ie the use of technology to make citizens participate more actively in government.

“It is going to be revolutionary and the first phase has already been a success story,” says Leo Bollins, principal clerk at the e-democracy unit in the Office of the House of the Oireachtas. “The operation of the Oireachtas has changed dramatically through the use of technology. There is a different atmosphere here than 10 years ago.

“E-democracy seeks to foster greater public appreciation of and connectivity to the institutions of parliament through the internet, which allows the citizen to access information sources online leading to a greater understanding of and engagement with the parliamentary process; the availability of interactive services such as notification of particular business; making submissions on matters before parliament and its committees in a structured way using ICT; and contributing to policy consultation and policy formulation online, for example, as part of a revitalised legislative process,” he continues.

The Oireachtas has moved from a situation where the circulation of documents — from bills to committee reports — was purely through a medium of printed hard copy to a situation where the electronic version is much more important.

One high-profile example is the parliamentary debates — the nuggets of hard information, dull as pebbles of long-forgotten information and knowledge, but in the right hands they can become as energetic as coal, as brilliant as diamonds.

Every word uttered in an Oireachtas debate since the foundation of the State is available on the internet at www.oireachtas-debates.gov.ie, which was voted best parliament site in Europe by Politics Online Survey in June 2001. This project started in 1998 and consists of an electronic version of the corpus of parliamentary debates records from the first Dáil in 1919. It has 720 million words, in excess of 600 volumes and eight million cross references.

Powered by Sun Microsystems, it was developed by Propylon, a world leader in systems integration, web services and XML (extensible markup language) enterprise systems, and the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Dáil debates in the Oireachtas are available on the internet within 24 hours and the proceedings of Oireachtas committee debates and legislative information are also posted up on the internet. A DVD of the archived debates will be available this June.

“This project opens up a new world for research and study and is a vigorous and valuable contribution to the ever widening world of democratic transparency,” says Liam Fitzgibbon, editor of the debates.

“It was an enormous project, which we believe to be the first of its type in the English-speaking world. At one stage it was the largest XML repository in the world, with the search index alone being 4GB in size,” Bollins reveals.

“It is a tremendous tool for anyone interested in public affairs — academics, journalists, students and politicians from all over the world now have instant and free access to the entire recordings of the parliamentary debates,” Fitzgibbon adds.

The Oireachtas has a legislative function and as a result has a different role to that of a government department, which means that it would not be appropriate for it to be an e-government site, according to Bollins.

“The pure e-democracy vision concerns itself with a different focus. However, there will need to be a level of integration with e-government, particularly in regard to e-legislation which will underpin the transaction system and which also will be an essential element of e-cabinet,” he says. Bollins questions to what extent should parliament, as distinct from government, be involved, particularly as many issues have political implications.

In January another step in the advancement of e-democracy was the installation of a digital recording system by the Office of Public Works. This package has been designed by Digitake Software Sales for the recording of parliamentary debates and it replaces an analogue tape system and pen shorthand.

“The system, which is in use in the debates section, converts the analogue audio from the Dáil and Seanad chambers and the Oireachtas committee rooms to digital format and places it on an in-house network where members and staff can replay the proceedings on their PCs,” Fitzgibbon adds.

E-democracy in Ireland is only beginning to spread its wings, according to Bollins. “E-democracy is in its infancy at the moment until ICT becomes functional in every government department and agency,” he says.

In terms of practice, it is clear that the development of e-democracy, at its purest form, is at a median level, with most work to date being at the level comprising government information to citizen communication being made available via the internet. Later stages of e-democracy will be concerned with the online delivery of services, the rearrangement and integration of services around users’ needs and public involvement in consultation and policy formulation.

In conjunction with the eCabinet project and the Office of the Attorney General, the e-democracy team is also planning to develop a system to enable the electronic drafting and processing of legislation.

“To achieve the aims of e-democracy our website needs to be structured to enable immediate and integrated presentation of information,” says Bollins. “This in turn demands that documents need to be authored to a standard that recognises their own integrity while understanding the links that exist with other documents and presentation formats.”

To illustrate this point, Bollins explains: “A visitor to the site should, on viewing the schedule for the day, be able to link to the order papers of the day. Entries in the order paper should have further links to items of business, for example, the text of a bill, the debates that have already taken place on the bill in the committee and from there to the membership of the committee and CVs of its members.”

To achieve this level of functionality, the authoring of documents must be changed. In this regard the key elements are XML authoring, content management systems and the development of document type definitions. The e-democracy unit is in discussions with In Vision Research, a Florida-based XML company that was awarded the e-government XML contract last December and may draw down this contract.

“The advantage of an XML authoring tool over a word processor is that word processors will fail the following tests: re-use, re-purposing, longevity and ease of use when creating structured documents,” he adds.

“The e-democracy project will facilitate the creation of a knowledge-based organisation in the Oireachtas and in the public service. This will lead to a more efficient and effective institution, as well as job enrichment for staff as barriers to the sharing of knowledge are broken down,” Bollins concludes.

By Lisa Deeney