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Congress.Gov take School House Rock to the Next Level

“I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it’s a long, long journey to the capital city. It’s a long, long wait, while I’m sitting in committee. But I know I’ll be a law someday. At least I hope and pray that I will. But today I am still just a bill.”

Many of us learned about the legislative process while listening to the School House Rock anthem in our elementary classroom. But if you want to take your knowledge of the legislative process a bit further, you only have to log on to Congress.gov.

Congress.gov is in an initial beta phase with plans to transform the Library of Congress’s existing congressional information system (Thomas.gov) into a modern, durable and user-friendly resource.

Andrew Weber is the Legislative Information Systems Manager at the Library of Congress and Tammy Nelson is the Project Manager at Congress.gov. They told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that Congress.gov is the next generation of Thomas.gov.

“Congress.gov is a way for anyone in the public to get access to data about what Congress is doing. At this time that includes data about the Congressional record and data about members of Congress. It is also an educational tool. You can find resources including videos, charts and a glossary about how the legislative process works,” said Nelson.

Thomas.gov vs. Congress.gov

“Thomas.gov started almost two decades ago. At the time it was put together rather quickly, but it did a pretty good job of providing the American people and the world with information about what Congress is doing. Congress.gov takes takes that and uses a lot more modern technology. The new system also has a lot more capabilities and is a lot more robust than the previous system. It will give us a lot more flexibility going forward to incorporate new data,” said Weber.

Why Not Merge the Sites?

“We have taken an incremental approach to this process. Thomas was a very large system that too two decades to develop so in six months we won’t be able to re-create it all. So we’ve taken an incremental approach that allowed us to work together with the Library, subject matter experts and information architecture experts and put out a system on September 9, 2012 that included core data and functionality. Now we are looking at feedback from users and running usability tests,” said Nelson. “Once we get everything from Thomas included in the new system we will retire Thomas.”

The Beta Phase

“Congress.gov is currently in the Beta phase. That allows us to do this incremental approach,” said Nelson.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

“We’ve learned a lot through the user feedback. We found what people are expecting to see, what they like about the system, what they still wish was there from Thomas. In the past six months we’ve been able to make several changes and improvement to get some of the functionality of Thomas but keep the robustness of the new system,” said Weber. “The feedback and web metrics give us this rich picture of what the users are looking for, expecting and hoping for.”

Educational Tool – Videos

“We want to make sure that people understand the process as much as possible. That is where the new legislative section comes into play. There aren’t videos like that on Thomas, they were created specifically for the new site. The text was drafted by legislative experts,” said Weber. You can see a video here:

Congress.gov has also added:

  • We have a visual tracker that lets you see where a bill is in the process.
  • Added a more extensive Glossary of Terms. That glossary is throughout the site. For example if you are looking at the action tab of legislation there is a link to explain what an action tab does.
  • At the bottom of each page we’ve added a link to an Ask the Librarian feature. Questions go to staff here at the Library of Congress.
  • Once a month we hold a webinar that trains people on how to use the site.

What’s next for Congress.gov

  • We want to add a browse by date feature.
  • Add Congressional reports and committee landing pages.
  • Focus on search tuning.

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