Legislators ditch paper clutter for iPads

Apple iPad. Photo by Leon Lee

Apple iPad. Photo by Leon Lee

Apple’s iPad tablet computer could be seen all over the Statehouse this last session. A legislator waiting for a hearing to start would find something interesting on the Web and pass his iPad over to a colleague. When a constituent would ask a legislator about the status of a bill, the legislator would pull an iPad out of her purse and pull up the current language of the legislation. At least one House member even reported a bill to his colleagues on the House floor while consulting notes on an iPad.

The biggest shift to online-only iPad use was in the House Committee on Government Operations, which embraced the tablet for bill review this year in an attempt to eliminate the reams of paper that the committee generates each session. The change was pushed by techie legislators and sold as a way to save paper and money. The jury is still out on the monetary savings, but cluttered piles of paper have given way to greater order in the committee room, and some unanticipated advantages have emerged.

While leaders in the paperless experiment say they are not ready to recommend that the entire Legislature convert to iPads, many legislators have forged ahead and purchased their own iPads, and the Senate Government Operations Committee is scheduled to become the next committee to convert to electronic legislating, in 2012.

The road to a paperless committee

Rep. Ken Atkins, D-Winooski, vice chair of the House Government Operations Committee, is a long-time techie. His first computer was a black Apple II Plus distributed by Bell and Howell, with 32 KB of RAM and 512 KB of disk storage — less than 0.1 percent of what now fits on a CD.

Asked about using the iPads instead of paper, Atkins quoted the advertising character Tony the Tiger: “They’re grrrrreat!” He said he’s been trying for 10 years to get the state to use more technology. Atkins has introduced several bills to get the state to buy laptop computers for all legislators.

“I got a lot of crap for that, because people said, ‘Oh, you guys are just looking for toys.’ I knew nothing would come of (those bills), but it was just raising the level of concern.”

The state’s first purchase of computers for individual legislators was on a more modest scale. When the Legislative Information Technology Committee indicated an interest in piloting iPads, Atkins worked with Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chair of House Government Operations, to make sure that their committee would get the first ones.

“We felt that some committee needed to be in charge of technology in the Statehouse,” Atkins said, “and we thought that Government Operations should be the committee. That’s part of our purview now: technology.”

The successful introduction of wireless Internet in the Statehouse helped the technology advocates, according to Atkins, as did generational turnover in the Legislature.

“Every time we would have a new election, more people were coming in who were savvy with technology. More people were having laptops, and more people were using them on the floor for various reasons.”

Duncan Goss, information technology director for the Legislature, said they chose the iPad because it has a long battery life (10 hours), the format is similar in size to printed documents and it’s easy to use. Goss loaded the iPads with iAnnotate, an application that allows legislators to make notes on bills, either writing by hand with a stylus or using a keyboard.

Teaching people to use computer technology can take at least as many resources as the hardware and programs. Goss opted to ask the committee members to teach each other. He and his staff trained Sweaney and Atkins ahead of the session, and IT staff member Dawn Attig spent two hours a day with committee members during the first several weeks of the session. They also encouraged committee members to help train each other.

Goss also told legislators they could use the iPads however they wanted, not just for state business.

“If you want to buy a Scrabble or Solitaire app, you can buy it on your own dollar and play with it,” Sweaney said. “The idea being that if you restrict it for only when you’re in the Legislature, you’ll put it aside and never use it. You won’t become addicted to it.”

Sweaney herself became an iPad addict — she said she never ended up taking her laptop to Montpelier last session.

Saving paper and other advantages

Both Atkins and Goss are convinced that the iPads have saved paper for the state, and that translates into some financial savings. Goss says that paper, printing, binding and delivery costs for the daily legislative calendars and other general-distribution documents by themselves can add up quickly. “A couple-hundred-page calendar, which is very common, is a five-dollar bill right there.”

Atkins said the cost of printing calendars, journals and bills two biennia ago was $500,000 for the entire biennium. At $500 apiece, iPads for the entire Legislature and 20 staff members would cost $100,000.

The cost of staff time for purchasing, learning and assisting committee members with the new technology is difficult to generalize from a pilot project to the entire Legislature.

Witnesses before House Government Operations also saved printing costs. Rather than bring in photocopied written testimony or additional handouts, they\ started to email them to the committee staff ahead of time. Atkins said, “The word got out, if you want them to look at something, don’t bring paper, because they’re not going to take it.”

For legislators, the paperless experiment had tangible results in clutter reduction, both during and after the session.

“I had virtually nothing—just one stack of papers that I brought home,” Sweaney said. “And I’m a saver. Over the years, it’s been boxes and boxes of stuff that I bring home and pile up and don’t look at again.”

Because committee members received testimony in advance, they had a chance to review it and prepare questions. Atkins and Sweaney both said committee members came better prepared for discussions with witnesses.

The iPads became loaded up with other things besides bill copies and witness handouts. Sweaney is a UVM trustee, and she put her over 300-page board book onto the iPad for reading there. She also receives annual reports from many organizations, which she can now have at her fingertips in the iPad.

Sweaney described how handy it was to have all her legislative documents with her in the iPad. “I’d have people stop and ask me, ‘What happened to that bill that you have in your committee?’ I can just open my iPad and say, ‘Hold on just a minute, here it is,’ rather than running upstairs to find the file.”

When the iPad is connected to the Internet, its capabilities go far beyond storing documents. Atkins kept a list of new uses for the iPad during the session, and many of them were searching for facts the committee needed: What’s the current make-up of the education board? What is the text of the Rutland city charter? What does the U.S. Constitution have to say relevant to the national popular vote bill? “Before,” Atkins said, “no one would have looked these things up—we’re too busy.”

Access and technical issues

Some technical issues plagued the use of the iPad throughout the session, and a number of people pointed to unsolved issues of citizen access and how the iPads fit into public records law.

One area where problems might have been expected but were minimal is legislators’ competence with the new machines. Goss’s characterization of the iPad’s “light learning curve” was borne out by Rep. Dennis Devereaux, R-Belmont, who was widely considered to be, as he admitted, “as technically challenged as anyone on the committee.” He said he was “frustrated at times,” but now he is an “enthusiastic” supporter.

One recurring problem during the session was that the Statehouse wireless network would shut down, so the iPads could not be updated with the latest information. “We finally got most of those bugs swatted towards the end of the session,” Goss said. “The last month or so of the session was pretty trouble free.”

Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, checks her IPad during the 2011 Legislative Session. VTD/Josh Larkin

Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, checks her IPad during the 2011 Legislative Session. VTD/Josh Larkin

The sheer number of wireless users in the committee room created its own set of problems, Goss continued. “We had to make some adjustments because of the number of devices in a very concentrated space. We had to put in a couple extra access points to handle the load. I think going into next session we’ll be in much better shape.”

Simple things like naming conventions for files are being scrutinized, too. Legislative staff sent committee members files with non-obvious names, and at least one committee member renamed them and organized them in a way that was clear to her. But the software that communicates with the iPads sends them any files that it doesn’t see—and if a file has been renamed, the software sends another copy with the original name.

“That’s going to be an issue of coming up with a sensible file structure that people can understand,” Goss said, “and making sure that documents get named with a meaningful name and put in a place where they would be logically found. That’s just an organizational issue.”

While the paperless work of Government Operations gave the legislators and (some) staff access to fresh electronic versions of bills as they were produced, the public never got the same access. The Legislature’s bill tracking system is usually days or weeks out of date for the text of bills that are being actively worked on. A committee or committees may modify the text of the bill every day, while the Web site continues to present the bill in some earlier phase, for example, when it was introduced.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, attended many of the Government Operations Committee hearings, and he would have liked access to the electronic documents that legislators received.

Gilbert said that paper copies of the new drafts were available to non-legislators in the room, but “I would have preferred to get electronic copies. That’s much more efficient, and that’s how I do most of my records management, electronically.” Publicly available electronic copies of bill drafts would be valuable to people following bills from outside the Statehouse, as well.

Lack of access to the iPads and their electronic documents also affected staff. The committee members repeatedly found themselves not on the same page—literally—with a legislative council attorney who was not supplied with an iPad. In one of the final days of the session, Michael O’Grady brought a bill draft to the committee and presented the changes he had made in response to committee requests. Halfway through his presentation, which repeatedly referred to text modifications by page number and line number, committee chair Sweaney broke down and asked for a paper copy. The electronic version that O’Grady had sent them had neither page numbers nor line numbers.

Without his own iPad, O’Grady did not see the bill in the same format that legislators did, and formatting discrepancies like this were common.

State Archivist Gregory Sanford asked the committee to consider how electronic bill drafts would affect future generations’ access to the legislative record. Committee records are useful to courts scrutinizing legislative intent in lawsuits, as well as journalists and historians who wish to report on legislators’ deliberations. Vermont law requires that public records like committee documents be kept forever, unless the Legislature otherwise specifies when they may be destroyed.

Sanford is discouraged with the way the state has handled new technologies in the past, like recording of committee hearings. “No management plan was ever put in place for these analog recordings,” Sanford said. “After the mid-1980s, when they stopped transcribing the tapes, two things happened.

One is that, of course, once you put a tape recorder in the room, the clerk is going, ‘Free at last; I don’t have to keep minutes. It’s all on the tape.’ And then if you don’t manage the tape, what happens? Now it’s captured on reel-to-reel, which is harder to find, or cassette with no backup, so if it breaks, you’ve lost the record.” The state found a few years ago that it would have cost $750,000 to convert the analog tapes to a digital format, and it hasn’t been done.

Sanford wants to see a management plan for committee records created early in the age of iPads, so that an authentic and reliable record of committee work is preserved. The Legislature doesn’t have a plan, and both Goss and Sweaney acknowledge that one is needed. O’Grady, who is the Legislature’s public records officer, did not wish to be quoted for this article.

Paperlessness in the 2012 Legislature

Legislative staffers are looking to expand the iPad-only experiment to the Senate Government Operations Committee in the 2012 session.

Jeannette White, D-Windham, is chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, and she has forbidden the use of laptops in her committee. She says that the laptop screen puts too much of a barrier between the user and everyone else, and it seems “disrespectful” to witnesses. She also does not like the way she has seen them used on the floor of the House, where, she says, “you can see people playing solitaire, doing their email, checking websites and stuff, and I think that’s disrespectful to proceedings of the body.”

She’ll let the iPads in, however, partly to complement the work her counterpart committee has done in the House and help the Legislature evaluate the technology. She is more comfortable that the shape of the iPad, which she says is “no worse than a stack of papers,” is not disrespectful to witnesses in the way that laptops are. White speculates that the temptation to use the iPad for other work in committee is less than with laptops.

Though White characterizes herself as a “Luddite,” as well as a scribbler and a doodler, she’s happy to try going paperless. “Old dogs can learn new tricks,” she asserted.

Devereaux, the technically challenged House committee member, has some advice to legislators starting with the iPad: “Give it a chance. I was a little leery, but there’s technical help out there, and we help each other. It did force me a little bit, and being forced was probably the best thing for me. I think it’s the wave of the future.”

Editor's note: This story was written on a laptop and published on the Web. All notes were taken on the laptop. Conversations were recorded digitally using Skype. No paper was used in writing or editing the story.

Correction: This article has been corrected to note that an IT staff member met with House Government Operations Committee members for two hours a day during the first several weeks of the session.

Carl Etnier

About Carl

Carl Etnier hosts the talk radio shows Equal Time Radio on WDEV, Waterbury and Relocalizing Vermont on WGDR, Plainfield and WGDH, Hardwick. He writes a column on Transition Towns in Vermont Commons and blogs at the newspaper’s web site. Carl began regular newspaper writing and reporting with a column in the Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald in 2008. His media work started when he left a consulting career to raise awareness about the choices Vermont faces as world oil production reaches its limits.

Carl also works as a part of the Transition Town movement and serves on local food and energy-related committees, as well as the East Montpelier Select Board.

Carl considers himself a professional generalist, having continually worked both sides of the line between science and technology on one hand and social policy and sustainability on the other. That’s led to a B.Sc. in botany and crop ecology, an M.A. in liberal education, and Ph.D. studies in decision-making process that consider sustainability aspects of wastewater treatment. He’s worked in academia, at non-profits, for municipal government, and in the private sector as a water and wastewater consultant. He is sometimes mistaken for an engineer, but really he has just hung out with engineers a lot.

After growing up in Wisconsin, Carl lived in six states and three countries (Japan, Sweden, and Norway) before settling in Vermont starting in 1998. He speaks Swedish and Norwegian, plus broken Spanish.

Carl lives in East Montpelier with Céilí the fast-running dog, Mizu the water-loving cat, and five hens a-laying. He’s happy to live in easy bicycling distance of events in Montpelier, from which the 700-foot climb home gives plenty of time to mull over what just happened.

Email: cetnier@vtdigger.org

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