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Features - The Minnesota Legislative Web Site: A Cooperative Effort

By Randi Madisen, Published on May 14, 2002

Randi Madisen is the Web Services Group Manager for the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. She received her MLIS from the University of Michigan in 1988.

History of the Site

The official Web site for the Minnesota Legislature, www.leg.state.mn.us, received over 44 million hits in 2001. As the 2001 recipient of The Council of State Governments’ Eagle E-government Award for Best Legislative Branch Web Site, our site was judged on ease of use, design, accessibility to the public, technological innovation, and how effectively the Web site streamlines government and delivers better customer service. How did our legislative Web site become one of the best in the country? If we had to describe our web site with one word, that word would be “cooperation”.

The Minnesota Legislative Web site began as a Gopher in the autumn of 1993. The House wanted to have a Gopher, and the staff of the Legislative Reference Library suggested that it should be a legislature-wide effort. So the library outlined the information available, and the various legislative offices cooperated to post everything already available in electronic format as documents on the Gopher. Our Gopher site was one of the first in the country for a legislature, garnering over 63,000 hits in 1994, our first full year.

In 1996, the Gopher site moved to the World Wide Web. The Gopher outline provided an excellent directory structure, so URLs stayed stable for years. The current Internet site runs on five servers: House, Senate, Legislative Reference Library, Office of the Revisor of Statutes, and Legislative Coordinating Commission. The five servers are all different kinds: Novell, Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Unix.

Features and Content

Since 1996, the site has been revamped every two years at the end of the biennial legislative session. Currently the links on the main page are the pages with the highest number of hits from last session. (Because of the five servers, we’ve always had an interesting time compiling statistics. We currently use WebTrends.) These links include: House; Senate; Legislation and Bill Status; Statutes, Session Laws, and Rules; Schedules; General Information; Youth pages; and Joint Departments. Less important links include What’s New, Directories, Publications, Maps, and Other Government. At the very top of the page are service links like Search, Help, and Links to the World.

Our Web site search engine, http://search.state.mn.us/leg/, is provided by the State of Minnesota and resides at the Department of Natural Resources. Currently, it is powered by Inktomi. We can restrict searches to a particular directory or server, making it possible to search just the House or Senate, or just the Minnesota Rules. The library adds Dublin Core metadata to key pages using the Legislative Indexing Vocabulary thesaurus. The search engine is tuned to place pages with metadata higher in the rankings.

Help contains help on using the Web site, searching help, policies on privacy, linking, and updating, and much more http://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/help.htm). We’re currently working on revising the FAQ for basic information on the legislature and legislative process, and the results will be available from the Help page, among others.

Links to the World, http://www.leg.state.mn.us/lrl/links/links.htm, contain all the links to sites outside the legislature. The Legislative Reference Library maintains these pages in a nonpartisan, balanced way. Each link is selected for the quality of information. Each link has an annotation, with additional links within the resource if appropriate. Links to the World are link-checked every two weeks to weed out and correct bad links.

The Legislative Reference Library maintains almost all the joint pages linked from the main page, except House and Senate. The library also provides and maintains templates for all types of pages. The House and Senate maintain their own Web sites, but cooperate in key ways. Each of their home pages has similar links, so a user would be able to find information in similar ways for both the House and the Senate. The House, http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/, has automated their Web site considerably, using ASP to build their pages from a database. The Senate, http://www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/, codes each page separately. The library uses basic tools like Textpad and DreamWeaver for editing web pages, but is beginning to use ASP and server side includes to make our portions of the Web site easier to maintain.

The Office of the Revisor of Statutes provides the bulk of the information that makes the site valuable: bills, bill status, Minnesota Statutes, and Minnesota Rules. The Revisor uses a BASIS database with a web front end to make the statutes and bill summaries searchable by several key indexes, like author, statutory citation, and keyword. The Minnesota Statutes (http://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/statutes.htm) are available as files as well as in the database, so the site search engine will pick them up. The Minnesota Rules are only available as files, so the site search engine is the only way to search them, although a search can be restricted to just the Rules. The Revisor updates bills hourly and bill tracking at least daily if not more frequently. Online Statutes are updated yearly, and the online version is available before the print. Rules are updated on a chapter basis. If a single rule is added or amended within a chapter, the entire chapter containing the rule is updated on the website. The "Current as of..." date is the date on which the rule was placed on the website.

A group called LNET, which stands for Legislative Networking Group, governs the Web site. This group cooperated on the original Gopher, and continues to cooperate on the Web site. LNET consists of information and systems staff from the legislature. We have never used consultants. Legislative staff who understand the legislative process in Minnesota provide the content and organization of the site.

Site Design, Goals, Cost, and Benefits

The current design of the web site came from a cooperative process during the summer of 2000. A “look and feel” group and a navigation group met simultaneously to decide on a new design. The main controversy came over colors. To ease navigation, all House pages have one color, Senate pages another color, and joint pages a third color. The Senate chose a deep blue, the House choose green, and then the joint offices bickered over a variety of colors for nearly two months before choosing a maroon color. (When choosing a color palette for a web site, never, ever put it up for a vote!)

Our goals are to provide information in the most accessible way possible. We try to be ADA compliant, and we aim for the lowest common denominator of software and equipment. We try to provide everything in print at the legislature on the Web site. We also try to standardize the look and feel and navigation of the Web site to make it more usable.

The initial cost of the Web site was mostly time of existing staff. Currently, about three full-time equivalents are dedicated to Web, with many more people devoting some of their time. Processes and procedures in various offices have been changed to bypass print, so adding information to the Web is not more work, just different work. Also, the equipment often serves more than one purpose. Thus far, the Web site has been an incredible bargain for the legislature.

The benefits of the Web site are numerous.
· The basic tools of democracy – bills, laws, legislative reports, and budget information – are available to all citizens regardless of location
· Legislators use the Web site to speed floor proceedings and to serve constituents.
· Legislative information offices no longer print numerous copies of bills
· Citizens, researchers, and state agency staff can follow the legislative process in real time, including webcasts or proceedings, without traveling to the capitol

Most problems reported with the Web site usability come from a lack of understanding of the legislative process. Subject access to bills by popular terms used in the press is limited. The bill search feature provided by the Revisor’s Office searches only bill descriptions, not the full text. People can search bills by topic, but it is sometimes difficult to tell from the results which one is the active bill on a topic.

Another problem is demand for items not easily available before the advent of the Web. For example, now that easily accessible bill status and streamed video has shown the importance of committees in the legislative process, suddenly people want instant access to committee minutes. Committee minutes for some committees are now available on the Web site, with more to come in future sessions.

The enthusiasm and creativity of legislative staff in working to change processes and add more features and information will no doubt lead to an even better Web site in the future. The LNET group provides an excellent forum to share time and expertise to provide quality information on the Web. Librarians collaborate with information technology specialist and subject specialist from various legislative offices to provide information in the most usable way possible. Cooperation, so rare in the political arena, has led to excellence for our Web site.