by Karl Kurtz
No, we're not talking about returning to Moses' style of lawmaking. It's tablet computers that are all the rage. How are they affecting legislative procedures and information services?
At a recent NCSL focus group of legislators and legislative staff, half of the participants said that they own tablet computers, and most of the other half said that they intended to get one in the near future. Reflecting the popularity of these devices, legislatures around the country are experimenting with using tablets to provide legislators and staff with easy access to bill status, committee agendas, state budgets, and other critical legislative information.
Last week at a joint meeting of the Legislative Information and Communications Staff and Leadership Staff sections in Richmond, Sharon Crouch Steidel, director of Virginia House information technology, and Tom Bennett, assistant to the majority leader of the West Virginia House, reported on pilot projects in their chambers to provide legislators with iPads. Sixteen Virginia and 10 West Virginia House members participated in their states' pilot programs during the 2011 legislative sessions.
For the most part, legislators who participated in the pilots were very pleased. One Virginia House member was so happy with the experience that he told Sharon, "You'll have to pry the iPad from my dead, cold hands."
Here are the principle benefits of using tablet computers that Sharon and Tom noted:
- Virginia participants found the iPads particularly useful in accessing and viewing state budget information.
- Members in both states liked the ability to integrate their various e-mail accounts on one platform, although they had to be careful about not having campaign-related e-mail on their state-owned devices.
- Members with weak vision appreciated the ease of expanding fonts with a flick of their fingers.
- The tablet computers are more portable and have better battery life than laptops.
- Tablet users made fewer help desk requests than did laptop users in Virginia.
- Virginia participants made effective use of DropBox to share files with other devices such as smart phones and PCs or Macs.
- Tablet users did not print as many documents as non-tablet users (see obstacles below).
However, there were also obstacles that had to be overcome:
- Participants found it cumbersome to print documents from their tablet.
- The lack of Flash technology on iPads caused some inconvenience to Virginia legislators. Since Virginia does not produce legislative in Flash, the inconvenience was the same as that of all iPad users.
- The iPads were not able to read strikethrough and italic fonts in PDFs of bill drafts in Virginia. As a result, staff had to change the standard fonts for presenting deleted and added language in bills.
Sharon said that Virginia House staff have been working on iPad-specific apps for electronic committee and subcommittee information management, but the process of obtaining Apple's approval for their enterprise deployment abilities has been time-consuming and bureaucratic. Both Sharon and Tom said that it is easier to use tablet web browsers to access information rather than writing apps specifically for these devices. Click here to see West Virginia's mobile web bill status information.
Why iPads rather than other tablet computers? Sharon and Tom both said that when they were first developing these pilot projects about a year ago, the iPad was virtually the only choice available in the market. They plan to assess other tablets that have since become available as they continue testing in the next legislative session.
Legislative staff who also used the tablets in both states concluded that they were a handy supplement to a laptop or desktop but could not replace the more robust machines.