Common Cause/NY, Tech Expert Lay Out Tools for How Albany Lawmakers Must Legislate Remotely

Democracy does not pause, it adapts

NEW YORK, NY (03/31/2020) (readMedia)-- Today, Common Cause/NY and Andrew Hoppin, the former and first ever Chief Information Officer for the NYS Senate, held a press conference call to provide clear guidance and direction for how New York lawmakers can and should continue legislating remotely after the budget, due April 1st. Both the Assembly and the Senate have passed resolutions and rules changes that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a limited or as needed basis, but neither house has specifically indicated whether session will continue. Additionally, the Assembly is stipulating that all no votes must be made in person. Last week, Common Cause/NY along with other good government groups, called on lawmakers to continue doing the people's business, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to pass laws and plan for recovery.

Other states like Pennsylvania, are holding public meetings, hearings, and voting remotely as of last week.

"The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government that can not cede its role to the Executive, which is correctly triaging the current state of emergency. While the Governor is figuring out how to get 40,000 ventilators, and literally keep New York alive, lawmakers need to look beyond the rapidly evolving crisis, and help plan for recovery in addition to supporting their constituents. We have the technology, the Legislature should use it," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

"The New York legislature maintains more sophisticated and well-resourced technology organizations than most states, and I'm confident that they could readily add affordable off-the-shelf software applications where needed to support these elected bodies in being fully operational while working remotely during this time. Some of these new tools and methods, potentially coupled with some enabling changes to policies and procedures, might even prove to add further efficiency and transparency to the work of these bodies, such that they could be maintained after this crisis is over," said Andrew Hoppin.

"The decisions lawmakers make today will have a lasting impact on our government. During these extraordinary times, elected officials should be able to deliberate and vote remotely, while also be able to carefully examine the consequential measures put before them. Assembly Members should follow the same rules the Senate has approved for these extraordinary times, and make sure emergency procedure rules do not become permanent," said Betsy Gotbaum, Executive Director of Citizens Union.

Existing technologies and options for a remote legislature

Ten years ago the NYS Senate overhauled its technology systems to better allow legislators to work remotely-- implementing webmail, supporting smartphones and tablets for the first time, installing secure WiFi routers in District Offices, and modernizing many of the institution's legislative and constituent data and workflow management software applications so that they could be accessed outside of Albany, and publishing all of the Senate's spending and voting data on the Web. Part of the motivation at that time was to ensure that lawmakers-- and their constituents-- didn't need to be in Albany to know what was going on in Albany.

As a result, the NYS Senate is already well equipped to operate remotely, with full support for mobile devices and the ability to access and operate key information publishing, legislative research information and constituent service software applications from any web browser.

New remote meetings and legislative workflow management could readily be added by vendors like Granicus, Tallan, PrimeGov, and Propylon, and even more simply by adding affordable off-the-shelf tools such as Zoom to the legislature's existing in-house capabilities. Remote voting, given the bi-cameral nature of State legislatures, could require some custom work by the highly capable legislative IT organizations, but simplifying parliamentarian rules such as requiring the physical printing of bills may be the larger impediment than the technology to record votes remotely.

The NYC Council's existing technology vendor, Granicus, also offers a GovMeetings tool suite that could readily add remote voting and remote public comment functionality to the Council's existing Granicus "Legistar" remote meetings software.

About Andrew Hoppin

From 2009-2011, Hoppin was the first ever Chief Information Officer for the New York State Senate, where his team opened up thousands of datasets for the first time and published all of its code in the first government Github repository in the world. Andrew was selected by GovTech as the 2010 New York State Public Sector CIO of the Year and by Information Week as one of the "Government CIO 50."

Andrew is currently CEO of CoverUS, a Brooklyn-based startup working to help Americans better afford their healthcare. He serves on the Board of Global Integrity and Humanity in Action, and as an Edmund Hillary Fellow in New Zealand. Andrew previously co-founded the NASA CoLab program, the DKAN open source government data management platform, and the civic technology company NuCivic.