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Government in the Eyes of a Technologist


Recently, I've had some thoughts about how I approach things. In general, I try not to make assumptions about initiatives or projects I'm involved with, and so when I want to learn about something I generally try to start with the most pure, uncorrupted source of record regarding that thing. In software, this is simple. The source code for a program tells the reader everything about that program and what it does. So lately, when I've been trying to get my head around what's happening in Washington, I've been following that tried and true software methodology: "Use the source, Luke."

In government, and in particular the United States government, we have several sources of unadulterated information. When a law is passed, we have an act. When a court decision is reached, we have an order. These interfaces seem clean and easily understood. After all, an act of congress is a legal document which follows strict construction rules and is easily parsed, assuming you know the rules for doing so. Personally, I can fumble through the text of some legislation, but I never feel like I have a real breakdown.

There are other considerations though. Currently, the body of law in the United States is a combination of sources. The ultimate source is the Constitution in its currently amended state. From there, congress has created laws, states have created laws, localities have created laws, etc. These laws are everywhere. At the federal level, the most intelligible source to query is the United States Code. This is the equivalent to a source code repository, where an act of congress is like a checkin or change. Every time congress passes legislation, the code can be changed in some way. Maybe it's added to, maybe existing sections are removed. This makes legislation read far less like a document with a purpose in mind, but rather like a series of instructions for lawyers to follow, which makes it very hard for the layperson to understand the content and context.

So now what's to be done? For those that want to research the laws of the land as they're being debated and enacted, shouldn't there be a place to see a parsed, explained version of a piece of legislation? Perhaps even see the places of the United States Code that would be affected by it? Would that help keep congress more honest? Or are these things simply uninteresting at large to the masses?

These questions are hard to answer, but one thing is clear to me. The more information people have, the more likely they are to act on the information that they have. In my opinion, it is far too easy to dismiss the claims of a political opponent (things like a congressman pointing out an earmark in a bill, or complaining that the bill doesn't do what it was meant to) because we would rather simply believe what we want to believe. If the facts are easier to come by, and if we want to know them, they should help us guide our lawmakers back to a just and productive path.

Technology can help accomplish this. I propose the following. There should be a website that is used to expose the underlying meaning and details of legislation. The original document will be used to create a sort of cheat sheet of sorts. To overcome the problem of length, legislation would need to be broken up into workable chunks, and then hopefully a distributed effort would allow even large acts (cough, stimulus, cough) could be broken down into understandable pieces. There are problems to this approach, naturally. It's sort of the Wikipedia problem. Who gets to contribute? Who gets to edit? There are other things to consider, but on the whole I think the idea is sound.

I think technology can help us keep our government honest just as much as protest and media attention, especially if it is accurate, easy to access and interesting to the people.