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Providing information to Parliaments: current trends in the online provision of information to Members of Parliament in Australia: proceedings of the Eighth Australasian Information Online and On Disc Conference and Exhibition, Sydney, 21-23 January 1997



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Current Trends in the Online Provision of Information to Members of Parliament in Australia Providing Information to Parliaments

Catherine Gilbert

Project Manager, Information Storage & Retrieval Systems Parliamentary Library, Canberra

Parliamentarians require current, topical information and parliaments have, to varying degrees, embraced the use of new information technologies to satisfy these needs. Despite the many differences between parliaments, there are a number of common trends which are identified and discussed. These trends include an emphasis on media information, the integration of Bills, Hansard and other information, the need for selective dissemination of information and the electronic publishing of parliamentary data. Problems in the delivery of such information are also identified as is the potential for interaction of parliamentarians with constituents through the new information technologies.

Parliamentarians require current, topical information and parliaments have, to varying degrees, embraced the use of new information technologies to satisfy these requirements. Despite the many differences in services between parliaments, there are a number of trends that can be observed.

In discussing these trends, parliamentary information is used to describe information generated by parliaments and parliamentarians, and information generated by those interacting with parliaments and parliamentarians by virtue of new information technologies such as the Internet. The former category includes sources such as Hansard, committee reports, bills and tabled papers; the latter category includes information created by political parties, lobby groups and others that interact with parliaments and parliamentarians. This is a broad definition, but it is difficult to consider one aspect without the other as interaction is one of the prime characteristics of the new information technologies. Not only does information technology allow immediate, global communication, but newer technologies, such as the Internet allow for interactive communication between parliaments and parliamentarians, and citizens, journalists, academics and students. Moreover, it is likely this interaction will increase rather than decrease in the new few years.

The overall trend Until recently, the major uses of information systems by parliamentary libraries (and other information providers) in providing information to parliamentarians were to:

find reference to documents or items of relevance, through internal or external catalogues or indexes ●

obtain documents or items, usually in printed form but sometimes extracted from a more comprehensive database on a CD--ROM or dial--up service ●

transfer these documents into digital form for a local system (if copyright allows), or index the hardcopy in an online catalogue ●

get references or documents to the client usually by producing a hardcopy. ●

Using this older model, the major systems concerns are thus:

the provision of indexes and catalogues ● data entry ● scanning ● input/transfer standards (e.g. MARC) ●

storage tools and mechanisms. ●

Whilst the older concerns have not gone away, new issues have now arisen, with the potential to revolutionise information access, retrieval and delivery. These changes reflect the technological possibilities now available. These possibilities include:

access to documents directly to clients without the need for “dumping” them first ● documents no longer need to be stored in retrieval software's native or proprietary form but rather using a variety of formats, including SGML, PDF, Word, etc. ●

documents can be accessed closer to their source saving on duplication and editing. ●

Under this new model, the major concerns change to:

copyright/ownership issues ● privacy issues ● retrieval tools/mechanisms ● electronic publishing. ●

In summary, the change from the old model to the new model is a change from “dumping” information into one giant repository owned by an agency to an access approach. This goes much further than the old, now cliched idea of the “electronic library”. These new Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) are characterised by a combination of full text retrieval technologies, imaging, workflow management and multimedia. These systems are capable of handling a range of document types along with appropriate methods of retrieval, access and processing. An EDMS must also integrate a variety of data sources and media. The result is a system which brings together all the computer resources required to support a document-- based business processed. Couple this with Internet technology and you have a very powerful tool, where information, internal or external, is only a hypertext link away. Not only that, but the information can be voice, video, image or any other multimedia application. Searchers will still need to access internal and external information. The Internet, often seen as the answer to many problems, is not the total replacement for existing library systems. Common retrieval and filter mechanisms for a wide range of information sources is the solution and this will involve use of the Internet among other devices.

Parliaments are perhaps in a better position to take advantage of this technological change than other organisations. Although they too, are experiencing budget restraints and cost--cutting measures like most other institutions, parliaments are more likely to have the resources and access to skills to develop these new systems. In addition, the new systems can be shown to have immediate benefits to parliamentarians in their daily work. Some direct benefits to parliamentarians include:

immediate access to information from a variety of sources in a variety of formats ● consolidation of information sources so that the physical source of the information is transparent to the user ●

provision of a means to advertise government and opposition policy through the posting and access of such information ●

provision of a means to promote parliamentarians themselves (such as through press releases, ●

statements, biographical and electorate information, etc.) promote immediate access to important documents, in a form most suited to their needs, including the ability to incorporate printed, electronic, or other text into another document (such as a news release).

●

Specific trends in the online delivery of parliamentary information Some specific trends in the delivery of parliamentary information that distinguish it from other types of information can be discerned. These trends include a high priority requirement for media information including news/wire services and use of electronic media, the integration of Bills, Hansard and other information through a single search mechanism, the provision of SDI services and the electronic publishing of parliamentary information.

Emphasis on media information

There is a general and growing requirement of members for parliament to use media information. This includes news feeds from wire services, transcripts and broadcasts of television and radio items, press clippings services and press releases. This is sometimes to answer questions such as “who said what and when”, to monitor media performances or generally to get a feeling of what is being discussed on an issue or issues.

It is significant that members of parliament often state that they wish to access press clippings as they appear in print (such as an image of the clipping and headline and photos). 1 Accessing online text of articles alone does not totally fulfil their requirements; the appearance of the article is important to their needs. Press releases also provide an important source of information although obtaining them can often be a difficult task.

News feeds and other media monitoring information can be set up for parliamentarians through a selective dissemination of information (SDI) service so that parliamentarians have access to the latest information. The production of transcripts is a labour intensive process but provides a high demand service for members of parliament. These types of demands underline the timely, topical nature of requests for information from members of parliament and that a high degree of personal service is needed to provide this information to them.

The large number of requests for listening to or viewing radio or television items is also a challenge. In some parliaments, such as the Commonwealth Parliament, there are moves towards digital audio/video provision. In the next fews years it is hoped that members of parliament can search for a television or radio item and immediately view or hear it on their desktop.

The integration of bills, Hansard and other information

Parliamentarians and their staff are busy people and, as with the general community, their level of computer expertise varies considerably. They do not wish to use to search many different types of search interfaces to search different types of material; in many cases, the sources of the information they seek is irrelevant too. The solution to these problems is the development of a common search interface to search different types of parliamentary data simultaneously, without necessarily specifying the type of material during the search process. In this way, a parliamentarian can retrieve information on the latest “hot” topic, whether it be in Hansard, a bill or bills digest describing the bill, a press release, a party policy document, a television broadcast, in a library book or in a paper written by the parliamentary library. This type of approach requires cooperation across parliamentary sections or departments — a sometimes difficult task.

The information systems resulting from this integration of material are the new Electronic Document Management Systems discussed earlier.

Selective dissemination of information services

As the amount of parliamentary information expands, so too has the need for selective dissemination of information (SDI) services. SDI services are useful in keeping a member of parliament up to date in their areas of interest, including and electorate interests. They are particularly useful for media information, where a member of parliament can be alerted to something almost as it happens.

The amount of information now available electronically facilitates the delivery of such services and their rapid expansion in recent times. A common search interface makes it possible incorporate a variety of types of material into such a service.

Electronic publishing of parliamentary information

There is a move towards the electronic publishing of some information generated by Parliaments, especially on the Internet. Not only does this make the information available to the wider public, it is also accessible by other Parliaments and, in some cases, assists members of parliament in remote electorate offices access vital parliamentary information such as the Parliamentary Debates (Hansard).

The Commonwealth Parliament has published daily Hansard on the Internet since April 1995. The Parliamentary Library also publishes its research publications, bills digests, sections of the Parliamentary Handbook and other Library publications on the Internet, as well as providing links to useful subject resources and other parliamentary information from around the world. 2

Victoria was the first state parliament to make daily Hansard available free on the Internet. Victorian Hansard is also available retrospectively from 1991 onwards. 3 The Parliaments of Tasmania4 and the Northern Territory5 have since made Hansard available on the Internet with a search engine. Some selective parliamentary information for Western Australia 6 and Queensland7 is also available. The Queensland Parliament sells electronic subscriptions to Hansard, although ultimately Hansard is to be made available on the Internet as well. 8

General problems in the online delivery of parliamentary information There is a tendency for governments and parliaments to divide their information into administrative groupings such as departments, sections, individual committees or upper and lower houses. Whilst this suits the bureaucratic nature of these organisations, it does nothing to enhance access to the often valuable and useful information concealed behind these administrative divisions. Subject approaches across organisations and agencies are a far more useful. For instance, someone may want to know whether a report or comment has been made on a particular subject of concern. It is unlikely that they would wish to go searching through listings under administrative groupings to find what they want.

Funding arrangements encourage this administrative approach. Project funding is often on a departmental basis precluding a “whole of parliament” approach. Funding to parliamentary departments whose primary responsibility is to provide information and research to a whole organisation (such as a Library) often do not receive adequate recognition of this important function and are not provided with the resources to facilitate shared information resources. In addition, funding for joint projects between parliaments is rare indeed.

Ideally in the parliamentary sphere, one would not only want a “whole of parliament approach” to information, but also a way of retrieving information across parliamentary boundaries. This particularly applies in Australia where there is a proliferation of governments and overlapping

services and concerns. In this way, for example, an interested party could determine the current state of land rights bills, forestry bills or industrial relations bills in Australia with one precise search without the need to visit many Internet sites, access several databases separately or “guess” as to whether they had a complete answer to their question.

There is a growing interest overseas in the use of the Internet to facilitate inter--parliamentary communications. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has set up the Parliamentary Assembly Network (PA--NET) to facilitate communication between OSCE Member Parliaments which are online. PA--NET currently provides links to the home pages of over 20 parliaments. It believes that “electronic links between parliaments will enhance the communications between members of parliament, staff members and particularly between parliaments in transitional states and their counterparts”. 9

Problems in the online delivery of parliamentary information to the public There are no standards applying to parliamentary information in Australia; access to the information of individual parliaments in Australia, by other parliaments as well as by the public, is patchy. Information currently made available to the public is done so at the initiative of individual parliaments and governments using a variety of technologies. For example, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library's Internet pages provide links to State parliaments but at present there is no real coordinated approach to providing access. Some parliaments have been able to offer useful access to some parliamentary information on the Internet; others have yet to make an appearance on the Internet at all.

There are a number of reasons that parliamentary information is not always available using the most appropriate information technology. These reasons are complex and are often related to the political structures and funding arrangements of parliaments themselves. In addition, making available parliamentary information through media such as the Internet, CD--ROM, dial--up service or by any other information technology is irrelevant if the potential users of that information do not have the technological means or the education to access it. A sound telecommunications infrastructure as well as appropriate funding for schools, libraries, universities, and so on to access the technology is a vital step. The “technologically poor” can also be disadvantaged by the new processes of distributing parliamentary information unless this issue is addressed.

The free versus cost--recovery models of supplying government information has been well debated in recent times. The same arguments apply to parliamentary information. It is pleasing that the Internet seems to have, for the moment, turned the argument in favour of providing free access to significant information resources such as Hansard and parliamentary papers. This has meant a change in policy both overseas (such as in Great Britain) and within Australia. For instance, online access to Australian Commonwealth Hansard was by subscription to the Parliamentary Database System; this is changing towards access via the Internet. The Parliamentary Library once charged all external users for copies of its research papers; these are now available for free from the Internet. Changes such as these may be seen as part of a wider change towards a “self--service” government model, or a “help yourself” approach to accessing information.

People are fundamentally interested in content, not technology in itself or the graphical impact relating to the presentation of that information. In fact, that presentation, however innovative, can be a hindrance to finding the information. For example, one State parliament in Australia has a rather large graphic sitting on its Internet home page — this graphic has been known to “crash” some Internet sessions due to its size.

Another parliament sells very expensive subscriptions to a major source of its parliamentary

information, including Hansard. However, use by outside agencies has been limited by the outdated technology used by this system, especially as it has been developed using a non--standard keyboard which causes major configuration and usage problems for external agencies. Searching is also fraught with inconsistencies. The technology has limited the usefulness of the information, although the content of the system is highly relevant. On a positive note, this system is in the process of being replaced. Yet another parliament developed a useful multimedia school resource on the role of the parliament. However sales were not as high as anticipated as the product was initially developed solely for the Macintosh platform and many institutions were unable to use the product.

These examples are all indications of how inappropriate presentation of information and information technology will limit the effectiveness of otherwise useful information. Importantly, the more appropriate presentation of information is far more likely to occur if the provision of these information services is done by an information expert, ie, someone skilled in the organisation and retrieval of complex information, not by marketing people or technologists. Often the hidden value of information is not utilised because of the inappropriate skills of those designated to manage it.

Along with these new technologies, other issues arise such as privacy, security and copyright. These issues are not the subject of this paper but it is important to recognise that factors such as the removal of Crown copyright enable more information to be made available via information technology. However, availability must be balanced with concerns for privacy and security. Other issues of propriety are also raised— for instance, should a member of the public obtain a copy of a bills digest on the Internet commenting on aspects of a bill before Members of Parliament receive the same information?

Parliamentary interaction with constituents by the Internet Technology is available to effectively link parliamentarians with their constituents. The Internet in particular, is open, two--way technology which has potential to direct policies towards those based on interaction within the public.

A common question asked is “How do I contact my local Member/other politician by electronic mail?” The unsatisfactory answer is that most politicians in Australia still cannot be contacted directly by electronic mail; for those that can be contacted, it is necessary to locate their electronic mail address which is often non--standard in format. This problem is not confined to Australia — a report in the New York Times on 10 July 1996 stated that 83 out of 100 senators have public electronic mail addresses but half of the 435 House Members do not. 10 There is clearly a gap between what is technically possible and what occurs now. It is significant that parliaments have generally placed their technology dollars elsewhere first. As it was once commented, “e--mail gives you the power to send mail to the president of the united states and instantaneously receive no response whatsoever.”11

In an attempt to improve this situation, there is a bipartisan move in Congress under the name of “Internet Caucus”. The idea of Internet Caucus is to increase Member's understanding of the Internet and to get more Members online so that people can contact their elected representatives on the Internet. According to Congressman Rick White, the idea arose as “some Members of Congress seem to be lost in Cyberspace.” 12

The beginnings of a more interactive process based on information technology are just beginning to emerge overseas. There have been several online democracy projects, including the UK Citizens On--Line Democracy Project and the Minnesota E--Democracy Project. The former is an attempt at computer--mediated public debate between politicians and their electorates and has the support of several local authorities as well as some Members of Parliament. 13 The latter started in 1994 as a volunteer project and has now evolved into a non--partisan Web index of election and political

information for the state of Minnesota. It seeks to increase citizen participation in elections through online forums and collections of important information. 14 In both cases, it is public interaction with information that distinguishes the new information technologies. One stated goal of the Forum on Government Information Policy in the United States in August 1995 is:

... to forge an easily--accessible information link between citizens and their elected representatives, to enhance economic development, citizen empowerment, and participation in the democratic process.15

These overseas movements are yet to impact in any significant way in Australia.

However, during the Federal election in 1996, it became an essential part of campaigning for political parties to have their own Web sites. These ranged from the detailed information posted by the major parties such as the campaign speeches of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader along with some press releases and policy documents to the cynical “lesser of two weevils” page posted by the Democratic Socialists. These pages were well reported and evaluated by the traditional press. 16 In addition, some Members of Parliament have taken advantage of new technologies and posted home pages on the Internet. For example, during the 1996 Federal election, the ALP candidate for Brisbane, The Hon. Arch Bevis included an interactive voter feedback form on his campaign site. 17 One question asked how important the Internet was as a communication channel for voters.

Interactive polling has begun to emerge on the Internet. At the Federal election in 1996, Voice of Australia provided an online poll for anyone who wished to respond. There are many such polls now available, although their sampling methods must be regarded as dubious. Moreover, it will be years yet before this evolves into a formalised online voting process.

Lobbying is also an important marketing exercise in the political arena and lobbyists have made use of the Internet. Evidence of this activity could be found during the Federal election in 1996. The Internet provided a means for Albert Langer to instruct voters in “How to Vote for Neither” 19 and for groups such as Community Aid Abroad19 and the Australian Republican Movementto20 distribute information on a range of election issues. One of the more innovative Internet lobbying sites was provided by the No Aircraft Noise Party whose site provided a game to download. The game involved stomping on politicians, planes and cockroaches in a mythical kitchen to gain a few seconds of quiet!21 A different type of Internet lobbying took place in April 1995 when musicians broadcast a live concert from the lawns of Parliament House over the Internet to protest intellectual property laws related to the Internet itself.

Parliamentary information may be a serious business but parliamentary and political satire on the Internet is also growing. There are numerous example of political satire available on the Internet. The impact of parliamentary and political satire available through the Internet can only be guessed at. During the last Federal election, the Paul Keating Fun Page gained a certain notoriety. It has since been replaced by the Johnny Howard Comic Store.22

Conclusion Trends in the online delivery of parliamentary information have begun to reflect the possibilities of new information technologies. However, there is a long way to go before parliaments in Australia make full use of information technology, particularly in interaction with those outside the confines of the parliament, such as constituents.

References 1

This point was emphasised during the user requirement phase of the new ISR system for the Parliamentary Library, Canberra.

2

http://www.aph.gov.au/

3

http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/vicgov/parl/parlia.html

4

http://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/

5

http://www.nt.gov.au/lant/

6

http://www.wa.gov.au/parl/parlindx.html

7

http://www.qld.gov.au/

8

Computerworld, 3 May 1996.

9

Great Britain House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Information Society: Agenda for Action in the UK: Report, London, July 1996, p. 10. http://www.hmsoinfo.gov.uk/hmso/document/infosoc

10

“Capitol Hill Takes to Cyberspace, Though in Fits and Starts and Stumbles”, New York Times, 10 July 1996. http://www.nando.net/newsroom/ntn/info/071096/info_317508.html

11

Brian Windsor, composer of the Paul Keating Fun Page, interviewed on “Electioneering on the Internet”, Media Report, Radio National, 1 February 1996.

12

http://www.house.gov/white/internet_caucus/press/initial.html

13

Send a message to opengov@ccta.gov.uk to join the mailing list or for the latest information on the project.

14

http://freenet.msp.mn.us/govt/e--democracy

15

“Results of a Forum on Government Information Policy”, Alawon, vol. 4, no. 77, 9 August 1995.

16

For example, see The Australian, 13 February 1996, p. 57; Australian Personal Computer, April 1996, pp. 80-81; Internet

Australasia, March 1996, pp. 17-25.

17

http://www.gil.com.au/comm/garrison/ALP/query.html

18

http://www.aardvark.apana.prg.au/~albertl/

19

http://www.caa.org.au/CAA/current/election.html

20

http://www.republic.org.au/

21

http://www.ozemail.com.au/~nonoise

22

http://pcug.org.au/~stmcdona.howard.html