In state government, like any other field, there are technology leaders and technology losers. The state of Florida is a true leader in this field, and this week I’ve had the opportunity to spend some long hours with the developers of their unique and powerful LEAGIS system.
LEAGIS automates the processes that support the legislative process, from initial creation of bills, to their reading by various House committees, to their review by the Senate, and on to the Governor’s office where bills are signed into law. There is a whole specialized vocabulary for state legislation, and I won’t try to explain it all here, but there’s a nice overview of the concepts on the Clerk of the House’s section of the MyFloridaHouse.gov web site.
LEAGIS is a massive Office business application, built on the .NET framework with Microsoft tools like Visual Studio and SQL Server. I’ve had the opportunity to dig into the details of LEAGIS with its lead developers this week, and it’s exciting to see what they’ve accomplished and help brainstorm about where they’ll go with the next version of LEAGIS.
One of the things to understand about state government is that the rules change every two years (when a new Speaker takes over). Actually it’s even worse than that: most of the rules can be waived at any time, so you can’t even plan on two years of continuity. Every aspect of the system has to be flexible enough to be changed quickly and easily. These requirements are reflected in every aspect of the system’s design, from the multi-tiered architecture that cleanly separates user interfaces, business rules, and data access into loosely coupled layers, to the developers’ relentless focus on flexibility and ease of deployment.
The existing version of LEAGIS is far beyond the systems used in most states, and many other states are studying what they’ve accomplished in Tallahassee. Bills are created and revised/amended in Word, with lots of custom functionality in toolbars and a specialized custom markup language (LML, or LEAGIS Markup Language) that provides a simple mechanism for rendering documents and automating document assembly. Windows Sharepoint Services provides versioning for key documents, and bills are automatically published to the House web site. Citizens can even subscribe to email notifications of various events on the bills they’re most interested in, and the LEAGIS user interfaces span the full range of modern development paradigms, from dashboards and web apps to richly functional fat-client interfaces.
And that’s just the beginning. The next version of LEAGIS will be even more powerful and flexible, and will take advantage of several new technologies in the 2007 Microsoft Office System. The most powerful computer system in use by a state legislature is going to get even better soon, and I’ll share more details when — like the bills LEAGIS processes — those details are a matter of public record.
By the way, regarding the title of this post: the trainer for the LEAGIS system told me that bill analyses are “the low-down hoe-down on each bill.” One of the developers later told me that if you get bit by fire ants, “it’ll itch ’til the cows come home.” They sure talk funny down here in the South.