Niemczak, from the Parliamentary Research Branch, and Katie Hobbins, from the
Information and Documentation Branch, were members of the team that developed
LEGISINFO. The team currently includes Peter Niemczak, Karen Nordrum, Janet
Brooks, Denis Fournier, Megan Furi, Catherine Green, Robert LeRiche, Hélène
Platt and Gilles Villeneuve.
As more parliamentary
information, including Hansard and the full text of bills, went onto the
internet during the 1990s, it became increasingly difficult to find basic
information about what was happening in Parliament. To meet this problem the
Library of Parliament has developed a web based tool that is now available to
everyone on the Parliamentary Internet Site. The development and implementation
of this tool, known as LEGISINFO, is described in the following article.
Before LEGISINFO, research on legislation before Parliament
was a frustrating and time-consuming process. The problem was not a lack
of data; on the contrary, much relevant information could be identified.
The text of bills, government news releases and backgrounders,
legislative summaries and histories, and important speeches on bills – all these
existed, in print or electronic formats or both. The problem was that
they were dispersed across a large number of locations. There was no
single, user-friendly directory or compilation that brought together all the
data relating to a particular bill.
For example, a simple inquiry
about a bill’s status, might be of interest to a lawyer, academic, politician,
public interest group, policy maker, and many others. People wishing to
obtain up-to-date information could pay a private legal enterprise to research
the matter; or they could visit the Parliamentary Internet site and read the Status
of House Business to track the bill’s progress in the House of Commons,
following this with a review of the Progress of Legislation to determine
the status of the bill as it passed through the Senate. If they found
that the bill had received Royal Assent, further research would be required in
the Canada Gazette, Part II, to determine whether the Act had yet come
Several groups, including the
Library of Parliament, the Law Clerk of the Senate and various private
enterprises, had tried at one time or another to create products or services
that would provide a single point of access to information about federal
legislation. While many of these had merit, none was entirely
satisfactory. Some were not comprehensive enough to support detailed research;
others involved a fee-for-service arrangement or had been discontinued.
By early 2000, the requirement
for a single window on federal legislation currently before Parliament
was widely recognized. One of the organizations that stood to
benefit most from such a product was the Library of Parliament, which provides
information and research services to federal politicians responsible for
creating, reviewing, amending and approving that legislation. It was
evident to Library staff that the creation of a unified point of access to
various sources of available information would enable the Library to provide
better service to its parliamentary clients and would also reduce staff time
spent on researching and retrieving documentation.
In late 2000, discussions
between two areas of the Library – the Parliamentary Research Branch and the
Information and Documentation Branch – led to the development of a proposal for
the future LEGISINFO. Based on consultations among staff and input from
the Library’s clients, as well as research into other systems and feedback from
technical advisors, the proposal outlined a Web-based application that would
meet key criteria. It had to be user-friendly, bilingual, cost-effective,
and capable of being easily updated on a day-to-day basis. The proposal
called for a multi-phased release of the application, beginning with Library
personnel and later expanding to parliamentarians and eventually to the general
public. Senior management at the Library approved the concept in early
2001, and work began on developing a test version.
From Concept to Test Version
To make the application as
user-friendly as possible, the development team decided to model the new
application on the design of the existing “Bills” page of the Parliamentary
Internet site. This would give the Library’s current clients a familiar
and simple navigation menu, and would not require them to learn new terminology
or a different system of categorization.
The Bills menu allows users
directly to choose the category of bill they are looking for: a bill introduced
in the Senate, or in the House of Commons; by a member of the Government, or by
a private Member; in the current session of Parliament, or a previous session.
Once the user makes that initial choice, he or she is presented with a list of
bills within the chosen category. When the user selects a particular
bill, LEGISINFO shows a list of links to all the available and relevant
- the text of the bill, as originally introduced and as
amended during its progress through both Houses;
- its current status; major speeches in Parliament about the bill;
- the actual or expected date of its coming into force;
- departmental material (news releases and backgrounders);
- the legislative summary prepared by the Library of Parliament;
- suggestions for related reading; and more.
In other words, the user has access
in two clicks to a single, comprehensive and up-to-date source of information.
Users also have the option of using a simple search engine to search for
a specific bill by number or title.
In terms of visual design, the
development team wanted to ensure a simple and uniform “look and feel”
throughout LEGISINFO. The layout of the pages and the organization of the
data were made consistent, both within the application itself and with other
pages of the Parliamentary Internet. This approach helps to streamline
navigation so that users can quickly locate the information they require.
In order to be truly
effective, LEGISINFO would require constant – even daily – updating, so that
the information it provided would be current and reliable. At the same time,
it was important to keep the ongoing workload to a minimum. For these
reasons, LEGISINFO was designed around a database, as opposed to using HTML
format. The database design allows the team to make changes to the
information whenever required without having to manually update HTML and
republish the revised documents. In addition, the team took advantage of
as many opportunities as possible to automate functions in the application.
This approach enables the Library to control not only the workload involved
in maintaining LEGISINFO, but also the costs.
By April 2001, Library
staff had modified and populated an existing database to create a test version
of the application. LEGISINFO was ready for its first on-line
Launch and Expansion
LEGISINFO was officially
launched internally by the Library on May 22, 2001. The response was very
positive; both the Library’s researchers and reference staff appreciated the
fact that LEGISINFO was easy to use and regularly updated. As increasing
numbers of staff began to use the application, the Library’s parliamentary
clients became aware of the product and began to request access to it.
When the requests had grown from occasional queries to a sustained
chorus, the development team decided it was time to offer LEGISINFO directly to
all the Library’s clients on Parliament Hill, via the wider Parliamentary
In the fall of 2001, the
LEGISINFO coordinators met with representatives of the Senate and the House of
Commons to discuss the idea of making LEGISINFO available throughout the
Parliamentary Precinct. To assist them in reviewing the product, they
were given access to a test version for three weeks. The feedback from
representatives of both Houses included suggestions for minor improvements,
which the development team found very valuable.
One aspect of LEGISINFO that
benefited notably from these suggestions was the section on Major Speeches.
Originally, this section contained only the speeches of a bill’s sponsors
and those of the opposition critic. In light of comments from
parliamentary users, it was decided to extend this section by adding links to
speeches made during second reading by representatives of the other political
parties. This was a labour-intensive revision, but it added significantly
to the usefulness of the product. At the same time, the development team
added links to news releases posted on the Web sites of all five major
The most frequently
asked question became, “When will this service be available to the public?”
Once these changes had been
implemented on a test server and approved by the Library, the Senate and the
House of Commons, LEGISINFO was set to move to the Parliamentary Intranet.
Its official launch at this wider level took place on February 18, 2002.
New users were alerted and oriented through electronic mail, a printed
brochure and drop-in training sessions. The product rapidly became a
popular destination for parliamentary users, and with its success came new
pressures for its wider accessibility.
Moving to the Internet
The next step in LEGISINFO’s
development thus became its move to the publicly accessible Parliamentary
Internet site. After monitoring and reviewing the application’s operation
over a six-month period, the Library decided in late 2002 that the product had
been sufficiently tested and fine-tuned and was suitable for public use.
Certain operational issues,
however, needed to be addressed before LEGISINFO could move to the Internet.
One of these concerned a media monitoring service that the Library
provides to clients in the Parliamentary Precinct. On the Parliamentary
Intranet, that service is accessible via a link from LEGISINFO. It could
not be put on the public Parliamentary Internet site, however, because the newsfeeds
are obtained from private-sector publishers and are licensed for
distribution to a specified group of users. In order to continue
providing parliamentarians and their staff with this service, the Library
decided to create two versions of LEGISINFO: an enhanced version for users of
the Parliamentary Intranet, and a modified version (without some options such
as the media monitoring service) that would be made publicly available on the
Some aspects of LEGISINFO’s
content were also modified to make the product more useful to the general
public. Given that many of the application’s new users would be
unfamiliar with both LEGISINFO in particular and the legislative process in
general, the development team believed it essential to add a Frequently Asked Questions
(FAQ) component to the public version. The FAQ document was created to
address the needs of the non-expert user and provides answers to questions such
as “How do I use the Search function?” and “What are the Journals?”
To ensure that the material would be accurate and informative without
being too technical, the development team collaborated with procedural experts
in the Senate and the House of Commons in preparing the questions and answers.
After a four-week trial run on
the Parliamentary Internet site, LEGISINFO had its public launch on February
11, 2003. The public reaction was gratifying: the number of users, along
with the positive comments, far exceeded the team’s expectations both during
the first week and beyond. LEGISINFO is now one of the most popular pages
on the Parliamentary Internet site.
Quite aside from LEGISINFO’s value as a research tool to
countless users across Canada and elsewhere, its creation and fine-tuning have
been an education in product development at the Library of Parliament.
One key aspect of the
product’s development was the effective use of in-house resources. Given that
the Library already had staff who could provide the skills required for
the project – research capabilities; experience in Web creation and management;
in-depth knowledge of relevant information resources; database expertise – the
LEGISINFO team decided to use those resources rather than hiring or purchasing
from outside. This approach resulted not only in reduced costs but also in
a collaborative attitude that brought together employees from two different
branches in a successful cross-disciplinary effort. The project’s success
has enabled the Library to strengthen its internal relations as well as serve a
wider external public.
Another key aspect was the
need to ensure that LEGISINFO would be a low-maintenance application.
Although the Library planned to create and implement a significant new
product, it did not wish to hire additional staff to provide ongoing
maintenance. Thanks to its largely automated functions, LEGISINFO does
not constitute the full-time job of any member of the coordinating team. It can
be run smoothly with an average effort of no more than a few hours per week for
any of the individuals involved.
The phased implementation
process used to develop and launch LEGISINFO on the three progressively more
accessible sites was another important contributor to the project’s success.
It allowed the development team, managers and stakeholders to assess the
application thoroughly at each step, and to test each recommended modification
prior to implementation. This incremental approach made for a
higher-quality product and more satisfied users.
Success generates further
enthusiasm and new goals. The project’s future is still expanding.
LEGISINFO can and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of its
growing numbers of clients. Suggestions from users for new areas
for development include the following:
- a list of bills due for debate in the House of
Commons and the Senate;
- a single Web page showing where every bill stands in
the legislative process;
- tables showing the number of days that each bill has
- statistical data on the number of bills approved by
- statistical data on the coming into force of Acts;
- a list of committees of the House of Commons and the
Senate, detailing the bills they have studied and the current status of
- lists of various categories of bills, organized by
- information on the status of private Members’ bills
in the House of Commons and the Senate;
- a publicly accessible e-mail link to the LEGISINFO
The LEGISINFO team also has
ideas for expanding the application, when additional resources can be made available.
- a list of bills organized by subject;
- a link to the explanatory notes provided in many
- links to the time allocation and closure motions
relating to a specific bill;
- a list of the Acts affected by a specific bill, with
a further link to the Department of Justice Web site for each statute;
- a system for tracking and archiving information on
motions (including report stage motions and special motions concerning the
business of the Senate or House of Commons) related to specific bills;
- an automated e-mail notification system that would
let subscribers know each time LEGISINFO is updated with respect to a
specific bill in which they are interested.
If many of the new features
outlined above were added to LEGISINFO, this application would be positioned as
a comprehensive legislative information source similar to Thomas
(http://thomas.loc.gov/) at the U.S. Library of Congress. Some of the
proposed additions could be made fairly easily. Others, however, have
significant resource implications. The suggested publicly accessible
e-mail link to the LEGISINFO coordinators, for example, might result in a
torrent of questions and comments that could divert resources away from other
tasks. The LEGISINFO team will set priorities in light of input from the
Library’s management, users and stakeholders, and determine how the various
additions would fit into the LEGISINFO framework.
Although LEGISINFO started out
as a small project with limited resources, it has developed into a significant
and popular research tool for a wide range of users.1 At the
same time, it is a model for successful cross-disciplinary cooperation and
November 3, 2003 LEGISINFO received an honorary mention for the 2003 Agatha
Bystram Award for leadership in information management. This is an award
presented annually by the Council of Federal Libraries.