Digitizing Congress: Q&A with Kirsten Gullickson

Kirsten Gullickson, Special Guest to the Ash Center Technology and Democracy Fellowship, discusses how specific file formats of legislative documents and online repositories can make Congress more transparent and accountable to the public with Francesca Schembri. As a senior systems analyst for the Office of the Clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kirsten spearheads the effort to convert the paper and parchment of legislative documents and federal law into digital formats including text, XML, and PDF. 

Q: Who are you and what do you do?
A: My name is Kirsten Gullickson, and I’m a senior systems analyst for the Office of the Clerk in the United States House of Representatives. This is a non-partisan support job. I help support and manage the House’s paper and electronic workflow for legislative documents. I was drawn to this work because I care about the institution itself and the values of democracy.  Part of my job is to help make legislative documents and data available, not only to the public, but to Members and staff in ways that are timely and accessible. One example of this is the website docs.house.gov. The site, which was built by a team in the Clerk’s office, fills a critical gap in the legislative process where some documents (bills and resolutions) were not available in a timely manner to the Members, staff, and the public.

Q: How does docs.house.gov work?  Who does it benefit?
A: Both sides of docs.house.gov – Bills This Week and the Committee Repository – aim to make legislative documents available in a timely manner in multiple formats. Coupled with the availability of a document is the format of a document. No longer can our legislative bodies, be it the U.S. House, the U.K. Parliament or others, simply publish a PDF document online and say that is enough. Legislative documents should be in machine-readable format so machines can process them. The best format for legislative documents, which constitute very long pieces of text, is Extensible Markup Language (XML).

XML helps with many things, including the preservation of the document. XML also allows for the dissemination of the document across multiple channels. For instance, organizations can use the same XML file to create a PDF version for print purposes and an HTML version for online display. XML also offers better search capabilities compared to a scanned PDF.

Putting legislative documents in XML and other machine readable languages allows for the creation of richer tools to understand the progression and semantics of legislation. It’s not only the legislative document itself that is captured in XML, but also the different versions and iterations of the document as it moves from a proposed bill to a law. It helps tell the story in a more detailed way and we can build smarter systems and websites around these documents, which third parties—like journalists, parliamentary monitor organizations, for-profit companies, libraries, and such—can access and reuse. docs.house.govcongress.gov, and gpo.gov are all repositories where legislative documents can be found, many of which are in PDF, text and XML formats.

Q: How can file formats make Congress more transparent and strengthen democracy?
A: The idea of an open Congress isn’t exactly new, but we need to change the institution to reflect the times. You’re not likely to go look for the Congressional Record at your local library and read what’s going on this week in Congress—it’s not timely enough. The world moves at a much faster pace. Take our smart phones and other devices. We need to be able to look up what’s going on with our legislative bodies—whether it’s our local city council or the U.S. House of Representatives—on our mobile devices. That’s where we’re moving to. XML and other open data formats allow us to serve up the similar content that we were publishing on paper 100 years ago in a different, richer way.

Q: What roadblocks to tech innovation do you see in Congress?
A: Some of it is the nature and size of the institution. The legislative process is paper driven process. That in itself presents challenges. How is a digital layer added to the existing paper layer? Additionally, Congress is a large bicameral institution with many stakeholders. Many of the stakeholders, such as committees and members have a lot of autonomy to operate separately or independently. On one hand, that’s a plus. If a member wants to do something innovative with how she meets with constituents or gathers ideas to craft a bill, she has the freedom to undertake that innovation. On the other hand, when we’re trying to innovate across the institution as a whole, it is challenge to gather everyone together, gain momentum for an initiative, and say, “Hey! Let’s do this, let’s do it quickly, and then go!”

Q: What challenges to democratic governance do you wish more people were thinking about?
A: I think one of the main challenges is information overload. Getting through the information overload is one of the hardest challenges for our elected leaders. The amount of different sources of information these days compared to 50 years ago is so great. We all need to be educated citizens to keep democracy strong and resilient, and to keep the country moving forward. But who are we listening to and are these accurate, credible sources? Not only who are we listening to as individual voters, but how are we communicating information to our decision-makers so they can access the true key points of the critical issues facing our country?  Do they have the right information to make good decisions?  How do we tell the story of our government and the work that needs to be done or the policy decisions that need to be made in easy ways that we all can participate in? From the local level all the way up to the federal level, we need active engagement, trust-worthy information, and participation from everyone.

Q. Do you have any additional comments?
A. Yes. It is an honor and pleasure to be a special guest of the Technology and Democracy Fellowship program. There is energy and excitement about this topic of “technology and democracy” and how the two intersect. For me, I want to continue to encourage folks to participate in civic matters – whether that be by participating in a civic tech hackathon, making a career either in public or private sector (or both), attending and participating in a local civic meeting, or simply voting each and every time you are eligible. Citizen engagement in all its varied ways is so important to the foundation of our country. Be active. Stay involved.

Kirsten Gullickson is a Senior Systems Analyst with the Office of the Clerk, United States House of Representatives. She is a co-chair of the Legislative Branch XML Working Group, focusing on XML standards and practices in Congress. Kirsten works on XML initiatives to include supporting the U.S. House’s XML authoring application for drafting legislation. For the academic year 2015-2016, she is a special guest of the Technology and Democracy Fellowship program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.