Since the start of publicly distributed legislation, the U.S. government has sought to make it as easy as possible to read and distribute non-classified government documents. This has led to the sometimes tentative embracing of content languages as they are developed and deployed throughout different industries. In June 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke to attendees of the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference and emphasized the importance of translating all legislative measures into a standardized formatting like XML. Ryan framed this an an effort to promote governmental transparency.
“Now we’re working to go further, and publish even more current and past documents in XML,” he told the assembled. “I’ve asked our team to keep moving ahead by publishing all legislative measures in a standard format. That means enrolled measures, public laws, and statues at large. We want this data to be as accessible as possible throughout the legislative cycle.”
“The goal is simplicity – something that XML models excel at.”
Keeping It simple and accessible
As with all forms of communication, the goal is simplicity – something that XML and DITA models excel at. The Federal Register affirms the importance of making regulations readable with stylistic guidance on how to author legislative documents.
“Readable regulations help the public find requirements quickly and understand them easily,” writes the Register. “They increase compliance, strengthen enforcement, and decrease mistakes, frustration, phone calls, appeals, and distrust of government. Everyone gains.”
This focus on compliance and limiting confusion – and the accompanying administrative nightmare – is a key way that DITA and XML can make legislation and regulations less of a hassle. Since the law governing any particular industry is a living document – made up of countless, frequently revised laws that dictate everything from tax codes to prohibited transactions – ensuring that documents are not only accessible but also find their way in to the most relevant hands can be easier said than done.
A ‘quality control nightmare’
This was a particular challenge that Chris Drake, the deputy legal counsel to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, identified and sought to make less troublesome. In 2014, prior to Speaker Ryan’s comments – Drake and the governor’s office attempted to launch a “e-Regulation” program, moving away from the traditional and inefficient paper-based authoring process into something that would allow users to more easily interact with legislative content.
“Some agencies didn’t know where the most recent text-edited version of a regulation was,” Drake told GCN. “It was a quality control nightmare. We needed a system that was more transparent and accessible.”
“Lawmakers may be less than experienced with content authoring platforms.”
This e-Regulation system was pioneered with the help of Fairfax Data Systems to convert PDFs into DITA XML, with the goal of over time authoring legislation directly in XML so as to limit potential conversion errors and inefficiency. This in and of itself posed a challenge: Lawmakers and their staff are typically less than experienced with certain content authoring platforms, making it a steep learning curve. To compensate for this, the e-Regulation initiative focused on breaking authorship into a two stage process, with the first stage relying on automation.
“Extraction is a mostly automated process,” Mark Gross, president and CEO of DCL, a company also assisting with the conversion, to GCN. “The trick is to do it in a consistent manner, which is not that easy.”
Following extraction, the documents were edited and approved in XML draft form by humans. While still time and resource intensive, the process will in the long run save countless hours of having to convert documents into new formatting over and over again.
“If we had tried this six or seven years ago we might not have been able to find a solution that does this,” Drake said.
The ongoing value of DITA legislation
Of course, beyond accessibility, the virtue of an XML content framework is the ability to integrate live regulatory changes into existing and future content. As legislative content is converted into DITA, each element becomes a component. If a law is amended, changed or struck from the books, the components of that law as it relates to technical documents like work manuals and safety training can be automatically reconfigured to match the most up to date regulatory guidance. With agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on board with publishing all guidance in DITA, both companies subject to the regulations and the regulators themselves can work on the same page, without requiring extensive redrafting every time the law changes.