Making Laws with XML? Not this time…

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Feb 13, 2009

In 2006, I had the pleasure of working with several InfoTrends analysts, industry vendors, and technology users on some intriguing research entitled Multi-Channel Communications: The Content Publishing Workflow Challenge. As part of that document, we put together a solid case study on the California Legislative Bureau’s investments in XML technology for drafting bills.

The drivers for the solution were compelling — the creation of state law represents one of the most component-oriented content and collaboration-centric processes I’ve examined. Hundreds of senators and representatives may be involved from remote locations; sections of text require on-going additions and refinement up to the minute the law is passed; and the final document must be secured, archived, searchable, and widely available to participants and outsiders ASAP. XML document solutions were perfect for the purpose, and I highly recommend you check out this piece.

Fast-forward to the present day and the much-awaited/maligned stimulus bill proceeding through Congress. I awoke this morning to find this stimulus bill rendition, which the NYTimes accurately describes as “filled with hand-written copy-editing marks, insertions scrawled in the margins, deletions of whole paragraphs boxed with X’s slashing through them,and a variety of curious hash marks and other annotations.”

I particularly like the correction on page 59 (of the PDF), where $300M for the State Energy Program was dashed aside with a flick of the wrist. In this case, it’s fairly clear that the reviewer intended to change $3.4B into $3.1B — at least, I think that’s what the mark-up implies. The picture becomes a little scary, though, as exhausted senators and aides work through the night and weekend to mark up this 1000+ page bohemoth.  I wouldn’t want to be responsible for reconciling all those drafts…

Industry analysts are fairly accustomed to finding that although a solution might be compelling, drive a measurable ROI, and otherwise be “pretty darn cool” (as far as XML content management goes), the broader market takes its sweet time adopting solutions. In this case, Uncle Sam has some catching up to do if it hopes to accelerate an accurate legislative process.

Of course, it’s possible these annotated documents will eventually make their way into a robust, XML-based content system. On the other hand, it seems that the federal government — like many businesses –  still turns to paper when push comes to shove. In either case, there seems to be no shortage of copiers  in Congress, as evidenced by the varying handwritten “xerox” notations in almost every section of this almost-final draft.

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