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Sunlight on Thomas (Beta) and LIS and the future of Legislative Information

Looking Forward to the THOMAS Beta Website, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (Sept. 14, 2012).

In the near future, Congress is expected to release a major upgrade to its aging legislative information website THOMAS. The long-overdue update is part of a much larger effort to “enhance the effectiveness of mission-critical systems,” a response to significant public and internal pressure to improve congressional efficiency and transparency. The launch of “THOMAS Beta” is the first step towards developing what the Library of Congress describes as a completely “modern legislative information system” that will replace THOMAS and Congress’ more sophisticated internal legislative tracking website “LIS” in FY 2014. Both THOMAS and LIS will stay online alongside the beta website for several years.

While THOMAS Beta has been shown to stakeholders inside Congress, as far as I am aware there has been no formal engagement process with the public to identify specifications, discuss wireframes, or generally make sure the site meets the public’s needs.

Comparing LIS and Thomas

The Congressional Research Service has published an update to its handy guide for finding current legislation and regulations:

For those experienced in legislative and regulatory searching there won’t be anything new or surprising here, but it is a handy introduction and reference.

One thing I particularly liked was the comparison on p. 13 of the “Legislative Information System,” which provides access to legislative information to Members of Congress and their staff, and THOMAS, which makes information on federal legislation freely available to the public. That’s right, one system for Congress and a separate system for us ordinary folk.

Here is a sample:

Best used for Finding the most complete legislative information Best used for Working with constituents
Links from Bill Summary & Status display to CRS reports No CRS reports
Links to Capitol Hill and selected outside sources of floor and committee schedule information. Minimal links
Special advanced search capabilities Advanced search capabilities only in Bill Summary & Status database

Again, this won’t be news to most of you, but it is a nice summary of what we are missing.