The New York State Senate was in the hands of the same political party for 44 years. In 2009 that finally changed. With the new administration came new ways, including hiring the state senate's first CIO, Andrew Hoppin. Within months, their web presence would completely change.
As Hoppin surveyed how people were doing things in the NY state Senate, he was a little horrified at the waste. For example, there was a small army of people hand-clipping articles they thought the Senators would like. The clippers would then scan in the articles, print out copies for all interested parties and mail or deliver them. All in a huge waste of time and taxpayer money.
In addition to their processes, their CMS was a command-line mess, their website was essentially just a small brochure and their email was set up such that people couldn't work from home. You had to be within the Senate's network to access it.
A New Mandate
His new mandate was made clear. The previous majority leader was under charges for corruption. Those now in power wanted to achieve the following:
- Transparency: Create a more transparent legislature
- Efficiency: Enable Members to serve constituents in a more effective and efficient manner, at a lower cost to taxpayers
- Participation: Provide New Yorkers with the means to take a more participatory role in their state government
- Model: To model "best technology practices" for legislative bodies throughout the US
How would he accomplish this? With four key goals:
- Organize and share data internally
- Improve internal communications
- Organize and share data externally
- Improve external communications
In their previous website, it was difficult to even find out who your Senator was, let alone have any idea what they were doing or when. It was even hard to find the site if you didn't know to look for it at the domain senate.state.ny.us. You also either couldn't look at a lot of the legislation, or you had to pay to do so.
Since Hoppin had no staff for building a site, he engaged a consulting firm to build out the first version of the NY state Senate's new online home. By his own admission the site was built hastily, yet it's astounding what they've accomplished in less than a year.
First, he got them a much simpler URL: http://www.nysenate.gov/. There was a definite method to Hoppin's madness when he chose a .gov domain. Any site with a .gov extension is governed by strict rules on what's allowed to appear on there or not. Slinging partisan mud or going into campaign mode simply isn't allowed. And using the handle "nysenate" everywhere makes it easier to search for user references throughout Twitter and elsewhere on the web.
Today the site consists of over 100 sub-sites. There are 62 mini sites for Senators, 40 mini sites for committees, mini sites for issues and initiatives and sections for legislation, the open Senate initiative, photos and videos and a news room.
People can use a simple search feature to find out who their Senator is. Then they can go to their Senator's mini site, read the Senator's blog, write their Senator or the whole Senate and sign up for updates. If they're interested in reading legislation (and, uh, who isn't?) they can search all of the state legislation for free, sort the results and access permalinks. Users can even comment on legislation. Hoppin thinks they're the first legislative body in North America to enable that.
Sessions and events produce tons of photos and videos. All of these are uploaded to the site, and the videos also go onto YouTube. The NY state Senate's move toward open data is also supported through the site, with the data offered for download in a variety of formats. Since a US state can assert copyright (the US federal government can't) Hoppin chose the Creative Commons CC+ license so people can do almost anything they want with the data.
Policies also had to be created around allowing citizens to create content on the Senate sites.
How They Did It
Before starting, Hoppin and others had to research and learn the legalities and issues involved with hosting their site and anything linked to voters off site. New policies had to be put into place for privacy and other legal reasons.
The magic is accomplished with Drupal core plus 131 other modules. Views was used to create the site's Petitions capability. CCK is behind blog posts constituents can upload, events, committee hearings and more.
In addition to existing modules, 19 custom modules were created, and 5 more are on their way. The custom code currently lives on Github and will eventually become contrib modules on Drupal.org, hopefully maintained through collaboration between his office and others since he has only one full-time developer.
Outside of the web, the NY state Senate also started using video conferencing and IRC for distributed meetings and Redmine for bug and feature tracking. All of the changes had to be socialized and trained across Senate staff. New communications and PR processes had to be put into place, along with new tools, workflows and clear guidelines as to what was and wasn't allowed.
More to Come
Hoppin promises that there is more to come. He wants to add streaming, live video, a comprehensive archive and features such as automated transcription and keyword search throughout the videos.
Another improvement Hoppin anticipates is around workflow. Right now there are no approval queues. And those who are most likely the ones who have to approve the content are the least technical people involved. There has to be a balance between allowing these particular people to review the content and making it impossible for them to mess up the live site.
Finally there are performance issues. When the vote was coming up on marriage equality, they refactored the site a bit to deal with the most pressing inefficiencies. Doing so got them through that time. But with the site built so quickly he knew there are more refinements to be made.
Other government entities have talked to Hoppin about the policies and issues he's had to deal with. Ultimately he thinks that it's a worthy goal (but full-time job) to bring governments together and help them collaborate, organize and share development and code. He suspects that the best way to do this will be with a third party organization that can devote its efforts only to that type of work.