To: Ric Cantrell,
Subject: Senate Site: THE Online Democracy Award
Date: Fri Aug 29 11:03:42 MDT 2014
Posted: 28 Aug 2014 11:09 AM PDT
By Wayne Niederhauser
Originally published at UtahPolicy.com
The Utah Legislature won NCSL’s Online Democracy Award this year, again. We’re honored, grateful and determined to stay the course.
I’m convinced transparency is key to a good democracy. Utah has been working for many years to put financial data, documents, and even email online. More and more, citizens are able to access government information without an intermediary (no FOIA or GRAMA form required). Our website is a constantly evolving experiment, and an example of how to make government information available, and easily accessible. It’s not perfect yet, but we’re trying, thanks to staff and legislators who get the vision. You can see an almost-complete collection of Utah legislative sites at SenateCloud.com.
Utah was the first state to win the Online Democracy Award back in 2005. Since then, we’ve made upgrades and added features to make the site more robust and helpful.
Role and Purpose
The Utah Legislature serves all Utah citizens online with a dynamic suite of tools, including our official website (le.utah.gov), our mobile application (Bill Watch – Apple | Android), three YouTube channels (House | Senate | Legislative), a budget resource called the Compendium of Budget Information or COBI, and a variety of social media points of contact. These tools empower citizens to participate in their local democracy by: identifying and contacting their senators and representatives; finding and following bills, budgets, committees, and chambers; researching government policies and processes; understanding more about why the legislature does what it does, and knowing Utah’s legal code and Constitution.
We completely revamped our site within the last eighteen months to make content easier to find, integrate audio and video, and improve aesthetics. Within the last year we switched to a customizable Sol’r search engine for integrated search results. We added a function allowing citizens to “remember” their legislators. We created a taxpayer receipt to draw users into budget information. We redesigned our bill pages to bring the most current version forward. We expanded COBI to include more years of history and staff analysis. We converted our code and Constitution database to XML for better display and easier access.
The “Who represents me?” function allows citizens to see and remember their legislators using a home address or interactive map. “Search” lets them find bills, statutes, presentations, analyses, and other relevant resources from one place. “Audio/Video” lists multimedia events past and present and allows citizens to comment and share. “Calendar” shows scheduled events and provides links to supporting documentation, audio/video, maps, and “ics” calendar files. The BillWatch mobile app lets users track and access bills and related information from their mobile device. Our YouTube Channels include videos on legislative processes and issues. COBI gives citizens history and context for budget decisions via direct link from appropriations bills.
Our site tries to reflect the legislative institution’s emphasis on personal connection, inclusiveness and transparency. Users can find their home on a map and immediately see their legislators’ faces. They can see how their personal taxes were spent. They can provide feedback on every single page – and we follow-up on that feedback. Citizens can usually find what they’re looking for – bills, laws, budgets, you name it – either through our long-standing menu driven system or our prominent search bar. Our YouTube videos reflect personalities, issues, and explain legislative processes in common terms. The site’s background displays scenes from Utah’s magnificent landscapes that change seasonally.
We give special attention to accessibility in the design and testing of our site. We assured that it scaled well at very low resolutions. We tested it with numerous accessibility evaluation tools to be sure form elements were labeled, images had alt tags, and menu items were descriptive, among other things. We used HTML as our primary display of bills, statute, and budget information, limiting PDF to an alternative format for those who preferred it. We asked vision impaired individuals to test the site using screen readers and integrated their feedback before it went live.
Remember the “How can we improve this page?” box in the bottom right-hand corner of the site? If you’ve given us suggestions, part of this award belongs to you. Our Web Team meets monthly to work on the site – they add a new feature here, sand off a rough edge there, based on user observations and suggestions.
Keep them busy.
Thanks to the legislators and staff who made this happen.
NCSL Staff Chair Tom Wright presents the Online Democracy Award to Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart.
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