In the heat of the presidential primary season – amid ballots and debates, name calling, lawsuit threats, and no small amount of controversy about the value of the coin-toss as an electoral measure – it seems important from time to time to take a step back from both the sensationalism and the seriousness of choosing new elected officials and remember why we do it in the first place.
It’s easy, given the volume and intensity of media coverage that the presidential race receives, to forget that it’s not the only – or even the most important – feature of the American political landscape. The fact is that even as ballots are being cast, the work of governing – of setting, implementing, and enforcing policy – is still chugging along.
There is no better reminder of this than the fact that, this past week, the Government Publishing Office (GPO) released a new online tool – govinfo.gov – that allows any interested citizen to track records of what the various branches of the Federal Government are up to. It’s like Google for government documents, said the GPO’s spokesperson, according to Roll Call:
Users can access the Congressional Record, track the course of legislation or perhaps dive into a treasure trove of information specifically on President Gerald Ford.
Government geekery aside, anyone from the general public may punch out “Obamacare” and get a copy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the agency’s most popular document at 14 million downloads in the last six years.
This new system is not an innovation so much as it is an evolution. For years the GPO has maintained FDsys, an online archive that has afforded the public searchable access to Federal Government documents. But govinfo.gov is much more robust. According to the GPO-provided overview of the system, it offers an overall enhanced user experience and a whole host of new features that make searching both easier and more powerful. Some of them include:
- a new modern look and feel,
- the capability to link related content,
- two new ways to browse content: alphabetically and by category,
- a new open-source search engine,
- enhancements to the search filters, and
- more options for sharing pages and content on social media.
Beyond the hype, govinfo.gov does in fact offer a user-friendly inoculation against the tunnel vision of the election season. Users can certainly find the kinds of historical documents Roll Call talks about. But perhaps more relevant for creating and maintaining an informed citizenry, it allows users to search by date, pulling all documents from the last day, week, month, six months, or year.
In the last seven days, for example, govinfo.gov tells us that one bill was introduced in the House of Representatives concerning research into dyslexia, and another was introduced to authorize funding for the Coast Guard. It gives us documents related to cases heard in Federal Court across the United States. And it gives us access to a dozen new Congressional Reports – explanations of pending bills that include information about their contents, potential effects, and budgetary impacts.
Moreover, it allows users to refine and filter search results. So if we only want congressional reports in our seven-day period, or if we only want documents produced by one single organization or author, we an easily find that information as well.
Govinfo.gov is basically technical. The documents provided by the GPO are the archival records of the Federal Government, and as such tend to be long and sometimes difficult to follow. But even a quick search of the headlines – of the names of what has been entered into the Federal record in the past week, or of what kinds of bills have just passed or are still pending – gives us a lot of information.
Part and parcel of civility is being informed. In order to be engaged with the process of governing, and in order to have the kinds of thoughtful opinions about which we can have a substantive debate, it is imperative that we know what kinds of options are actually on the table. We can garner a lot of this from the news. But sadly, in a media climate where only the most sensational stories gain headlines and where, even in a twenty-four hour cycle, there isn’t a lot of room for nuance, the news will only take us so far.
Govinfo.gov fills some of that gap. On the one hand, the information it returns isn’t sexy or particularly entertaining. But it does serve an important purpose. It highlights just how little most of us know about what the Federal Government actually does. And it remedies that situation, allowing us to see what is politically feasible and what is politically current so that we can make better decisions about what we believe, what policies we support, an even who we plan to vote for in the presidential primaries.