Library plan to publish CRS reports falls short of the law, and is unduly expensive

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By Daniel Schuman, Kevin Kosar, and Josh Tauberer

Civil society, students, librarians, and the general public were elated when Congress decided to make the non-confidential non-partisan reports issued by the Congressional Research Service publicly available. These reports are often referred to as the gold standard for information concerning the issues before Congress.

We have obtained the Library of Congress’s implementation plan to make CRS reports available to the public, as required by 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Law. Unfortunately, it does not comport with the law or best practices for creating websites and is unusually expensive.

Today we release the Library’s May 22, 2018, CRS website implementation plan and civil society’s June 6, 2018 memo that responds to that plan. We hope that in doing so we will bring to the surface some of the problems with the CRS reports website’s proposed implementation so they can be fixed in time for the statutory deadline. (Note: The memos we are releasing are not to be confused with the CRS memo to congressional staff about the Library’s plans, which was released by the Federation of American Scientists.)

The civil society response, co-authored by Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, Kevin Kosar of the R Street Institute, and Josh Tauberer of Govtrack.us, is based on our experiences running everycrsreport.com, which is a website that publishes all current CRS reports online — more than 14,000 — including making appropriate redactions and additions to the reports prior to publication.

Our website cost under $20,000 to build and maintain with full functionality and fewer than 100 hours of programming time; the Library’s CRS website will cost $1.5 million, have limited functionality, suffer from significant design limitations, and not be completed for more than a year after the law was enacted and six months after the statutory deadline for completion.

This falls significantly short of what Congress directed the Library to accomplish and fails to meet basic public expectations for public access to CRS reports on a modern website.

Our nine-page report makes the following recommendations. To comply with the law, the Library should:

  • Update its implementation plan to ensure that it publishes all CRS reports — we believe there are many more than the 2,900 the Implementation Plan says will be published by Spring 2019 — by the statutory deadline of September 19 of this year. We request it aim for September 17th, which is Constitution Day. The Library’s implementation extends beyond April of next year;
  • Update its implementation plan to include all CRS Reports, including insights, infographics, sidebars/legal sidebars, in focus, and testimony;
  • Revise its implementation plan to ensure that HTML versions of the reports are available to the public just as they are already available to Congressional staff — this would help the visually impaired read the reports as well as allow reports to be read on mobile devices;
  • Revise its implementation plan to include an index of CRS reports, in accordance with the law’s requirements; and
  • Review the code we published to see whether it would help the Library meet its obligations, in particular our automated author information redaction functionality, or whether the Library could develop an automated tool that would enable it to comply with the timeline.

With respect to the website design, the Library should:

  • Consult with the Government Publishing Office and the public on how best to implement bulk access;
  • Develop a plan to respond to any initial heavy loads on the website;
  • Implement a robust website search capability and develop a plan to do so;
  • Create predictable URLs for CRS reports and a landing page for a report series, and set forth a plan to do so;
  • Keep down costs by examining our approach to see whether it can use some of our techniques to save money; and
  • Consider engaging an entity like the General Services Administration’s 18F to help keep down costs and ensure a quality product.

We have made several attempts to contact the Library on this and other technology issues, but have been unsuccessful in starting a conversation. We hope that we will be able to work with them on these issues.

Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress Action, co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition, co-director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a fellow at Stanford’s CodeX, and a former legislative attorney with the Congressional Research Service. Kevin Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and a former researcher at the Congressional Research Service. Josh Tauberer is a civic hacker, entrepreneur, and technology consultant living in Washington, DC best known for creating GovTrack.us, the widely used website tracking the U.S. Congress.