Thinking critically about the business of codifying local laws, it strikes me that there is a high interest in technology, but infrequently does anyone ask about the substantive side of codifying ordinances.
It seems technology has created a feeding frenzy for information; the faster (e-mail), more easily researched (search engine), more readily accessible (Internet) information is; the more we salivate to be first to get it. However, this frenzy has little nutritional value; we are consuming the informational equivalent of a diet soda (that contains zero calories and tons of additives). The missing ingredient is revealed in the question: “What about the substance of the information?” Do the words say what we want them to say? Do they describe what we really do? Are they consistent with state law? Court cases? The Charter? Is any of the language too vague? Does it improperly delegate authority?
As Chairman of Municode, I believe our customers have the privilege of determining what’s important, but to redefine our product so that its salient features are attributes of delivery instead of content, is in my opinion a mistake. Ask any codifier and they will tell you they started with a focus on helping local governments make sure their ordinances were substantively consistent, free of conflicts and reflective of the intent of the governing body. Printing pages or posting content online was necessary, but secondary. Technology has helped make processing and delivering the information more efficient, but it cannot replace the judgment of an experienced attorney or editor who is critically reviewing the ordinances for conflicts.
As the role of Information Technology in local government grows, the idea of “common sense” must also grow. I have observed a deferral by experienced staff to IT people when facing the question of purchasing and implementing software. Balancing an understanding of human nature, priorities, skills and experiences against technical “efficiencies” promised by a more powerful computer or new software should be a discussion won by common sense.
There is a concept emerging among technology firms called “Civic Technology.” Essentially firms are striving for “data access and transparency,” “data utility” and “resident feedback.” Proponents of Civic Tech believe that the best way to engage the public is to make maximum use of technology. My belief is that the public is comprised of all manner of people: technologically astute, technological neophytes, young people, old people, highly educated, less educated, public servants, capitalists and everything in between. The point is that no one method of engagement is best; all methods must be embraced in order for the substance of our government and laws to accurately reflect the will of the elected and electorate.
A. Lawton Langford
Municipal Code Corporation