The best-laid IT modernization plans o' mice an' men...

Low-tech, high-impact bill tracking at the Liberian Legislature

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley

Someone will have to get back to me on what an agley is, but I'm pretty sure the basic idea holds true for development.

I've returned to Monrovia to pick up the threads of a technology modernization plan for the Legislature of Liberia. I spent two months there last year doing an assessment and creating a workplan for how the organization could leapfrog into the 21st century. At the time we went through the standard best practices in quality developmental program design to arrive at a plan that was a joint vision of NDI and the legislative leadership, and launched initial implementation. The basic framwork was a new joint legislative technology center staffed with crack geeks; cabling the building for network access; a wide-ranging training program; a legislative website; and introduction of open-source software. Plan in place, I headed back to the US and turned to other programs.

Then something happened to the program. Er, more accurately, nothing happened with the program. READ MORE »

Tech Innovation for Democracy (and FTW!)

Ghana elections 2008 sms

I am excited to announce that I am joining NDI to work on tech innovations.  NDI is a leader in using tech for building democratic people and institutions, and an organization that I have known of and worked with ever since I started (way back in 2005). In fact, my now-boss Chris Spence was part of the inaugural meeting that we convened on 'mobile tech in social change' in 2005 that eventually led to NDI being the undisputed expert organization in using SMS in systematic domestic election observation, work that I have written much about.  

I will be working with the pioneers at NDItech, and the creative program staff in the NDI offices that are using tech in innovative ways to support representative democracy in areas such as citizen participation, elections, open parliaments, strong parties, and accountable and transparent institutions.  Democracy and governance, as the field is affectionately known by those inside it, is where I started more than 20 years ago, and I am thrilled to return to it, throwing into the mix creative uses of online technologies, new media, and mobile (of course).  And while 'innovation' is a much-(over)used term these days, I'm hoping to put our own imprint and interpretation on it as a part of the growing #tech4dem field.


Are you listening? Consultation in Policy Development

Pirate Party - Direct Democracy, with style

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with Social Democratic party members from around Southern and Eastern Europe (Croatia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia) as part of a conference coordinated by NDI’s Regional Party initiative (RPI) and the ruling party in Montenegro, Demokratska Partija Socijalista. Thematically, the conference focused on ICT and political participation through sessions on transparency and accountability, campaigning, youth leadership and policy development.

The latter, policy development, is central to the conference series, and we discussed ways that smart applications of technology can improve the outcomes of policy development.

As we’ve witnessed in the last few years, the “internet public” reflects the changed nature of human beings as social and civic individuals.  As part of this phenomenon, new connections are increasingly important, and pertinent information gets shared rapidly. One driver of these tools for political use has been the perception that political bodies are self-interested, dysfunctional, and don’t represent citizen interests. We’ve seen citizens rebelling against this order in ongoing Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy Movement, and newly founded political parties and organizations. READ MORE »

OGP: Progress and Challenges

"What you don't know, can't hurt you."

As a part of our series on  last month’s Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York, I’m reflecting on a discussion of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Discussants included Caroline Mauldin, Juan Pardinas, John Wonderlich, and was moderated by David Eaves.
As we’ve covered before on this blog, OGP is an international mechanism which gets governments to make public commitments in national action plans to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. NDI’s Governance team participated in the Annual Meeting, NDI’s Elections team contributed to a publication on electoral transparency, the NDITech team has been advocating their work at a number of events, and NDI country teams have worked with member governments on their plans. Our team’s contributions to technology for openness and transparency in strengthening governance beyond country programs, also includes working on a CSO Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. READ MORE »

How XML Can Improve Transparency and Workflows for Legislatures

It's not as complicated as it looks, we promise

This is a guest post from Andrew Mandelbaum, NDI's Senior Program Officer on the Governance team in D.C. You can follow up with Andrew on Twitter.

Recently I attended the conference “Achieving Greater Transparency in Legislatures through the Use of Open Document Standards,” hosted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), United Nations (UN), and U.S. House of Representatives. Organized by the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament (a joint IPU-UN initiative), participants mostly consisted of ICT staff from 12 parliaments, as well as academics and representatives of international organizations. Significantly, the PMO community also had a couple of representatives in Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation and Doru Frantescu of Following the conference, Knowledge As Power, a Seattle-based NGO that works with government officials and citizens to facilitate online and offline engagement, hosted a legislative XML training at NDI featuring some of the creators of Akoma Ntoso, an open legislative document schema that could serve as an international standard for legislative documentation. READ MORE »

Internet Governance in a Year

Internet Visualization - Courtesy of UNC

This year has certainly been a roller coaster for the role of the internet in global society. While there have been many advances in protections for the rights of users, unfortunately, there have also been massive steps backward in this arena. Recently, the Diplo Foundation hosted a webinar with Jovan Kurbalija (who literally wrote the book on Internet governance) about the 10 biggest developments in IG in 2011. After participating in the webinar, I began to reflect on these developments have been tied to NDI's work. The full list of developments are available here, and below is a sample of how NDI has contributed to and tracked these developments:

The Internet gets highly political: power of ICTs to push for political change. As stated in the webinar, “social media is now perceived as a decisive tool in modern political life”. NDI will continue to work with local partners over the coming years to adapt and evolve innovative approaches to using ICTs in the political landscape to ensure transparency, accountability, and other features of democratic processes. READ MORE »

Hacking Legislatures

A report on parliamentary monitoring organizations

If there's a statute of limitations on event-blogging, this update probably exceeds it - thankfully, innovations in government transparency and citizen monitoring are always timely. Three weeks ago, Facebook teamed up with the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer to host a "Congressional Hackathon." While no actual hacking took place during the event, it was a great opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm new ideas as part of an ongoing conversation about demand for legislative data, standards for sharing, and how to modernize constituent relations. Congressman Darryl Issa even announced a new platform that allows individuals to collaborate and mark up legislation with their own proposals and suggestions. READ MORE »

Informed Communities: Global Edition

Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age

While the United States does not have 'the exclusive license to innovation in democracy and citizenship,' looking at how technology has impacted democracy in America can highlight some important lessons for strengthening democracy around the world. The Knight Commission, a partnership between the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute was formed to examine these issues.

The resulting report focused on the importance of 'informed communities,' which are able to fully participate in a democratic society. However, the information needs of Americans are unequally met, limiting the ability of some citizens to participating fully in government. The report presents three main ways to ensure communities are informed: maximizing available information, strengthening the capacity to engage with information, and providing opportunities for greater participation. Relevant information helps communities gather, contextualize and share information important to them. Providing tools and skills gives these communities the ability to utilize this information. Beyond this, opportunities must be present for participation in the governance systems.  READ MORE »

If You Build It Will They Come?

Kosovo Assembly A/V Control Room

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Pristina at the end of June to assess the viability of a planned legislative document management system for the Kosovo Assembly. NDI plans to help, but we needed to be sure the project was on a successful track and see how we could best assist.

Why the cautious approach?

In 2004, five years after the conflict ended in Kosovo, one of the big international organizations correctly identified the need to modernize the legislature. Funds were allocated and plans were drawn up for a DMS (document management system), a bill tracking and legislative document tracking system - a necessity for modern legislatures. However, in spite of best intentions and significant financial investment, the system was deployed but never adopted by the Assembly and now lies dormant as the staff continue to manage legislative business manually - paper, copy machines, re-keying documents, etc. READ MORE »

Technology For Peace : Strengthening Democracy

Flickr user “baggis” / Magazine cover art from Science 1985

ICT in the service of “peace” often refers to a broad range of activities encompassing conflict prevention and management, peace operations, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and post-conflict peace building and reconstruction.

For example, the ICT4Peace Foundation is committed to effective communication in “crisis management, humanitarian aid and peace building”.  A recent USIP collaboration, Blogs & Bullets examines how new media can change the politics of unrest, revolution, violence, and civil war.  Their work emphasizes five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.

NDI’s approach to ICT & Peace has focused on how key tools can help communities and stakeholders improve communication, facilitate negotiations, increase transparency, and build trust.

Democracy assistance is often seen as falling in the range of activities associated with peace building and conflict resolution, as democratic institutions help maintain peace by providing mechanisms for managing or resolving conflicts without resort to violence.  READ MORE »

The Benefits of Backwardness


I'm just back from my assessment trip with the Liberian Legislature.

I had a great time with a lot of interesting folks. In a number of ways, this assessment was easy.

  • Tech infrastructure and capacity of the Legislature: Virtually nil.
  • Long-term infrastructure development plan: The same setup needed for, say, a small college .

The real challenge is the short term, and it's basically a question of triage. What are the most critical, targeted steps that can be taken in the next year or two that will have the greatest impact for the most people when you are starting from zero?

The Legislature has some great opportunities precisely because of their complete lack of infrastructure. This is the "benefits of backwardness" - when you're catching up you have a chance to leapfrog technologies. Historians suggest that's one reason Germany did so well when it first industrialized; it was able to jump to cutting-edge capital equipment, not start from spinning jennies. READ MORE »

Pushing the Envelope with Envelopes. And Excel.

Liberia's Capitol

I'm on the ground in Liberia working on a parliamentary modernization program with the national legislature. NDI does a lot of this work with the idea that a more effective, responsive and competent democratic government is a heck of a lot better for its citizens and more likely to endure.

Liberia's had a rough 30 years and it shows. The World Factbook indicators make for grim reading, and it is telling that the only good road through Monrovia - city of 1.3 million - is rarely busy.

The legislature has had a correspondingly difficult go of it. We're trying to help where we can.

One of the more prosaic but surprisingly complicated parts of a legislature is how a bill becomes a law. Go right ahead and do your review, I'll wait.

So with all the bouncing around a bill does, it's really important to keep track of where it is. Not just in the process - physically, too. It's a pain when you lose it. With the help of a former Chief Clerk* of the Montana State Legislature, we've set up something to do just that.

Ingredients for a Bill Tracking System:

Tech Leapfrogs Citizen Engagement - but Weakens Democracy?


A couple weeks ago I accompanied our Governance Director, Scott Hubli, to the International Council for Information Technology in Government Administration (ICA) conference. Scott was facilitating a conversation with government IT leaders from around the world on the role of citizens in governance in a rapidly changing technology environment where social media, mobile and similar technologies play an increasing role. There were six or eight of us hashing out some of this stuff and an interesting framework emerged that I found worth sharing – and that provides an opportunity to pitch some of our thinking about the potential of technology in emerging democracies going forward.

The broad theory that emerged could be summarized as follows: the rise of social media and citizen tools are creating new ways for citizens to engage with policy makers and leaders that bypass and therefore weaken traditional structures of representative government. However, the policymakers have not effectively learned how to deal with the public input coming in these new channels and transform these interests into effective policy – making policy less representative while potentially frustrating citizens who don't see an impact of their engagement leading to disillusionment with the process and possibly with democracy itself. READ MORE »

Blowing Up the Silos

Exploding Silo

I hit the World Bank today for "Mapping for Results." Putting results front and center is a great idea - as mapping has shot up the hype cycle, it's nice to focus on what it can do beyond putting up pretty pictures. However, I call False Advertising on the conference coordinators.

Maps are a particularly sexy current form of visualization, and there's a lot of great information that can be conveyed that way. (Shameless self-promotion: Like, oh,

The real star of the panels at the event today was not the maps: it was the data backing them. Like the puppeteer pulling the strings, the maps only do what the data tells them to. Panelists returned time and again to the importance of open data and easing access to it.

The World Bank's been a real leader in the Open Data movement; their site,, has thousands of data sets available for download. A lot of neat work has been build on top of their information already. But it's hard, cuz it's yet another data silo. All that info has to be pulled from their site and integrated into your own. READ MORE »

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