Public service, of the kind that helps to preserve our representative democracy, can happen in a number of ways. Politicians, of course, often seek limelight to show voters how they are defending our liberty and are acting as the best friends of the Republic (even when they are actually doing just the opposite).
Often, however, real public service happens in unsung ways, on the part of often unsung citizens and institutions. And sometimes, those acts of service that escape public notice end up ensuring government accountability in really important ways.
Consider two examples. In 2010, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan (but constitutionally conservative-leaning) nonprofit in Jackson, launched a website dedicated to tracking spending by government. Through the website, any citizen can search agency spending, government contracts, and revenue and budgets for state government, and, beginning in 2011, for most counties. Eventually, MCPP hopes to add similar searchable information for local governments.
Chances are, you may not have searched the millions of records now contained on www.seethespending.org. But many have. The MCPP effort has made it possible for the public actually to have access to public information about how the government spends your money. Before MCPP put the data on the web in a digestible format, it was much harder (if not impossible) to sift information about government spending, and have the ability to compare politicians’ statements with what was actually happening.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant. It may be contagious, too. The state government more recently launched a website of its own, designed to increase transparency in state spending. On the state site, citizens can also see agency contracts, travel by state personnel, and a variety of other information about the state budget.
The second example is a new initiative undertaken by the Mississippi College School of Law. This spring, the library at MC Law School launched its Legislative History Project via another website. The Legislative History Project is an online video archive of legislative debate in the Mississippi legislature. The project provides video clips of individual bills and select resolutions as they are debated on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The site is provided by MC Law as a service to the public without charge. It can be accessed at any time.
Using the Legislative History Project, the public can now access the debates and discussions on the floor of the Mississippi House and Senate on any bill, whether the bill was enacted into law or not. Video associated with each stage of the bill’s progress may be viewed. Searches may be done by bill number, by bill author, or by key words. There are also links to the actual language of the bill and to the Mississippi legislature’s website. The entire 2012 session is included, and the law school is working to complete the 2013 session.
MC Law School’s efforts represent a sea change in tracking legislative activity. Along with MCPP’s efforts, the Legislative History Project provides Mississippi more systematic legislative history. That is a term lawyers use to describe the official record of the deliberations of the legislative body. In Congress, by contrast, federal courts have long looked to legislative history to interpret federal statutes.
While MC Law School’s website is not official history, preserving the floor proceedings will help the public unlock how and why laws are passed (and voted down) in the form they do. Look for MC Law’s website to start popping up in court proceedings, and even legal opinions, soon.
More than that, preserving legislative history will, I suspect, become an important tool for holding legislators accountable to explain the process. In an age of civic illiteracy, that should be a good thing. Look for MC Law’s website to start popping up in election campaigns soon, too.
Technology plays a significant role in letting there be light. The information marshaled by MCPP on its spending site and by MC Law School in its Legislative History Project could not have been easily searched and studied before the age of computers. Now, however, after dedicated effort, the whole state has vital information at its fingertips. And, that information can be forwarded and posted instantaneously.
Of course, there is a (perhaps considerable) risk that information can be taken out of context, or inadvertently misconstrued by the public. But that risk is outweighed by the larger benefit of transparency and accountability in government. Keeping our public servants accountable is a significant public service in itself.
Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.