Propylon’s Bernie Murphy interviewed Chief Clerk of the Texas House Robert Haney to get his insights on the impact of technology and the need for innovation across the legislative landscape. As the newly-appointed President of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries, we asked Robert what technological changes and advances he would like to see happen and how he would like to drive transformation within the legislative space.
RH: Very profound. Many of the issues with innovating for legislatures stem from it being a traditional body consisting of procedures, rules, and process that may have been in place for hundreds of years in some cases. This can make the steps of innovating with technology problematic and polarizing. Most people aren’t anti-technology, but they are fearful of change and what implications changes can have on processes and rules that have stood the test of time. There is a real concern that technology could reduce the effectiveness of these processes and procedures, rather than enhance it. There is also a worry that if you take away their ability to run and manage these processes by replacing them with technology, the system could all fall apart and the legislative space will suffer. In reality, that is not the case – but it takes vision to see the advantages, the benefits, the innovation that technology can bring to the system already in place. Most people want to trust technology, but they expect value. It is changing the landscape of legislating for the better by making processes more reliable, more streamlined, and more efficient.
RH: There will always be people who are not open to the idea of change, and specifically to the idea of technology replacing a system that works fine the way it is, and they will have many important issues and concerns that need to be addressed. I have found that you can learn a lot if you just listen. It’s important to hear what everybody has to say in your work community; negotiate, compromise, come to a solution that works for everybody. I’ve had to make concessions along the way to get the technology we needed implemented. For example, when we made the switch to e-filing, there were archivists who expected to continue receiving various paper copies that had always been supplied. As a compromise for their record keeping needs, I agreed to print one bill jacket at the end of legislative session in addition to providing the data from e-filing. This has reduced our reliance on paper documents considerably, but it is by no means paperless. It took us from producing around 300,000 unique documents to producing only 7,500 documents that first session. So, we can see that it is going in the right direction but more can still be done. Making the decision to appease the archivists was an example of a necessary step in getting them to adjust to change and it placed them in a more comfortable position to look objectively at the effects of the technology once it was introduced. Over time, as they grow in their use of the new system, I suspect the need for the additional layer of print documents to diminish. So, I expect we will get closer to a “paperless” system, though whether a fully paperless system exists or not is yet to be seen! Innovating in the legislative space is largely understanding where you choose to start and stop with implementing technology.
RH: Closely aligning yourself with the chamber rules and procedures in innovating is key to its successful implementation – otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a failure. While you’re innovating, sometimes you have to change the rules. That can be okay – but you have to counteract that change by being completely transparent. You have to really be the project evangelist. If you are really rooting for the technology because you’ve seen what a game-changer it will be, your passion and love for it will essentially win everyone over, even the sceptics – eventually! Above all, people care about the integrity in the system. They want to be sure that the technology will support and respect the rules, regulations, and procedures that are already in place. Users want to be confident they can trust in a whole new system that is going to replace what they already know works. For example, when we were implementing the e-filing system, people wanted to know: “what if we come to the filing deadline on the 60th day at 6pm and there is a glitch in the system and the document isn’t received on time?” To instill confidence and resolve this question, we had our IT team test 500 pieces of legislation, each being 500 pages in length, and had them all sent through the system at the very same second. And you know what? It came through flawlessly. When the people who will be using this technology see these results, not only do they feel more confident in accepting the change, they also get to see how powerful it can be and they embrace technology more fully – because they witness what it can do for them. Not only do they see that the same processes, rules and procedures of old are respected and adhered to, they see that in fact the integrity is improved. As an example, the technology actually increases integrity by enforcing rules more consistently across users in restricting you from submitting a document even one second too late, which, perhaps, in the past would have been overlooked.
RH: Indeed. Technology is changing the way we approach our rules for the better. It is helpful in defining processes. Rules as a principle are rigid and by their very nature are unsupportive of innovation. They are there to be followed. And yet, technology is ensuring structure, defining fairness, enabling better vetting procedures, which instils integrity. As such, technology is becoming the new – and unlikely – custodian of rules. But, every state is different in how far it has advanced with its technology. Currently, there is no standard, no infrastructure, and this can be problematic when innovating globally. Eventually, traditionalist ideals will fade. The key issue here, of course, is at what point should we consider technology to be the official record? In today’s legislative environment, if it is not a printed document or bound copy then it is not usually accepted as the official record. This issue has become a major crossroad for official record keepers, but ultimately, at some point paper copies will become obsolete and this problem may work itself out through innovation. Regardless, I believe that technology solutions will arrive state by state, with some being achieved with more progressively, and others organically as environments change.
RH: You don’t want technology solutions to just replicate the archaic versions of things, you want it to lead with innovation and enable the dynamic use of data. For example, since we have developed new technologies,the process of manual data entry has become more obsolete. Saving time by not having to input data, avoids errors and the repetition that used to occur frequently across utilizing paper documents, and it allows for much more efficient record keeping. We have to look at it from a global perspective and ask: Who will be affected by this change? What are their expectations? What are their battles? and How can we make this work for them? Negotiating in this way is a big part of getting technology to the forefront of the legislative landscape – once it’s there, the positive impact speaks for itself. Newer, younger staffers and legislators who have only used technology in their work processes instead of a manual system often say “I can’t imagine ever doing this the other way.” This is proof that your new solution is innovative!
RH: No, everyone seemed happy with the application’s success. This success had a lot to do with how effective it has been at reducing people’s workload, saving time and just making everything easier day to day. The fact that there have been no real issues or fallout obviously speaks for itself. Another important element to our success was that we addressed from the outset the issues that people were experiencing and tried to ensure that we would listen and attempt to ease their burdens. A large part of this was ensuring that the new technology was easy-to-use, and that it was completely intuitive. Legislators rarely want to be required to learn new skills to do something they can already do with their eyes closed. But, they do want alternatives that offer benefits, not hindrances. In fact, not only was our staff community and legislators completely satisfied with the technology implemented, but our counterparts in the Senate saw the transformative impact it had on our system and they wanted to explore innovation as well. Innovation can be infectious if it is done the right way.
RH: I want to drive the modernizing of this space, improve internal and external communications, and enhance efficiency across the board to build a stronger and more efficient society. I want to implement a platform that allows people to share information and make jobs and leadership transitions easier for everyone.Because my society is made up of leaders in the legislative environment, there is a lot of great technological innovation going on in some states around the country and it is largely going unnoticed to the public. I want to promote it so that both legislators and the public can see the innovation that is happening. The public sector can be seen as great innovators in technology. There is the perception, I think, that legislatures are a body of archaic structures, resistant to change – which doesn’t do the sector justice at all. Digital transformation is happening! Things are changing, though perhaps this is not as widely known as it could be. Public interaction and transparency is flourishing. Speaking from experience, I know technological innovation makes for a more efficient House and I would like to see it happen across the board, across all states. I have experienced a lot of “aha” moments, where we see technology driving change and inspiring people. I want to inspire the members of my society and I want the world to see legislatures as cradles of innovation, rather that bloated bureaucracies. I want us all to continue to ride this wave of innovation.