I tried to find the schedule of cases being heard at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals about three weeks ago. I gave up before finding out the schedule is only viewable by downloading a PDF.
I also used to work for the City of Austin. I noticed that the city’s website was complicated and inelegant in design. It still uses unsecure, non-HTTPS webpages to collect information from the public.
In previous legislative sessions, The Texas Tribune created guides and tools, like a bill tracker and a legislative guide, for exploring what is happening at the Texas Capitol. Those useful tools are not around this session. Though the Tribune extensively covers the 85th legislative session, they now link to the resources provided by the state.
Those resources are not pretty. It’s a government thing. The government generally cannot make good web or mobile apps.
There are exceptions, of course. The City of New York’s website is usually praised for its friendliness and adherence to good design standards. California teamed up with Code for America to create a nice website for signing up for food stamp benefits, getcalfresh.org.
But there are a lot of barriers in the way of success. With limited resources devoted to web development, the government is often catching up to the private sector when it comes to creating public-facing websites and apps that are friendly and useful.
There are many stakeholders, barriers to communication and diverging interests to creating an effective web technology for governmental services. Even monumental projects, created with foresight and a massive budget, can end disastrously. The debut of healthcare.gov is a prime example.
Whether you are registering your car or trying to find what bills your legislator has filed, it is an unpleasant experience on websites that look like they were designed in the 1990s. These are barriers to civic engagement. That unpleasantness has come to define the way we interact with government through technology.
When I tried to imagine an app that I would create to help in these matters, I imagined consolidating tools that exist all over the place into one app that could help citizens, educators, legislative staff, lobbyists and people in media.
I am calling it Legislator Lookup because I am a fan of alliteration.
The information in Legislator Lookup exists on different websites, but it is crucial to have it one place. After all, the prediction that HTML5 would mean that app usage would decline in favor of the mobile web never came true. Smartphone users love their apps.
The mockup for Legislator Lookup has two screens so far. The main screen is simple. It allows users to search for their legislator using GPS or by manual entry of their address, which is like Texas’ “Who Represents Me?” site. The dropdown menu in the app’s search bar would allow a user to search for legislators by name, party or geographic area of representation. A list of recently searched legislators, or possibly pinned “favorite” legislators, is displayed at the bottom of the screen.
The second screen has detailed information about the legislator in question. This includes party affiliation, contact information and a photo. The screen would list the committees they participate in, too. At the bottom would be two sections listing with relevant bills and news pertaining to the legislator in question. Bills that they authored or sponsored with short summaries would be linked to additional information collected from Texas Legislature Online. The app would also allow for alerts to be set up for a specific legislator’s page.
This is a rudimentary mockup, but it exemplifies how one can dream of a more cohesive, comprehensive solution to a common problem. I tend to engage with the psychological, epistemological or cultural barriers to participating in democracy. But progress can also be made with something as simple as having the right tool. In other words, there should be an app for that.