Over the past few years, federal, provincial
and territorial governments have begun publishing their legislative documents
on the World Wide Web. Today, concerned constituents can follow government
proceedings from their home, office or public library. This article looks at a
number of issues related to this aspect of the information revolution. Only
those sites open to the general public have been included in this survey.
Intranet sites where information is limited only to persons within the
institutions have not been considered. The article is based on the state of
these sites at the end of August 1997. It tries to make some constructive
suggestions for the future development of these sites and also points out some
broader considerations that have to be kept in mind when dealing with parliamentary
The decision to go digital is economically
driven. Most modern legislative publications start out in digital form. The
real costs are printing, storage and distribution. With web publishing, costs
for printing are downloaded to the end user.
Web publishing can also increase
availability since web sites are open for business 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, availability is often confused with accessibility. With paper
publishing, legislative documents are available through any depository library.
Furthermore, Hansard, journals and committee proceedings include indexes which
allow users to browse these documents by subject. Some of these features have
been lost in the move to the web. The task of finding some documents has become
considerably more difficult.
The following pages look at the content of
each legislative sites in Canada, their accessibility and design. Often
secondary information, such as workings of the legislature or tourist
information, is included on these sites and these elements are also compared.
The Parliamentary Internet
What’s available: The Parliamentary Internet publishes parliamentary
proceedings of both the Senate of Canada and the House of Commons. Debates,
journals, and committee proceedings for most of the 35th Parliament
(1993-1997) are available for both chambers in English and French. The Senate
offers photos, addresses and biographies of members, whereas the House of
Commons has several listings but no addresses. Perhaps this will be added with
the new parliament.
For the virtual visitor, an online tour is
available including interesting details about each chamber and the Library of
Parliament. For those who wish to visit in real time, visitor information is
What’s accessible: The sheer size and number of documents available can
be overwhelming. Navigation tools, including icons, differ for the House and
the Senate as well as between documents. This can be disorienting.
A powerful and user friendly search engine
helps bypass some of these difficulties. Search options include individual
publications as well as a key word search of all publications. A search of all
publications for gun control yielded dozens of documents — no number count,
with a Senator’s biography deemed the most relevant. Hansard indexes for both
chambers are also available through this search engine and yield more accurate
Worth Noting: The Parliamentary Internet has extensive content but
navigation requires some work. Tighter, centrally controlled publication
groupings would ease access for the hundreds who visit this site for daily
updates. Finally, much concern was raised when certain sections of the 35th
Parliament’s proceedings were removed from the web site with no forwarding
address. Although they have been restored, hopefully, future archival attempts
will be well notified in advance to allow libraries and researchers to provide
access to these important documents.
What’s Available: All major parliamentary publications are there,
including the debates —first the hour by hour transcripts and final versions.
This process is repeated for committees. Significant reports are listed
separately. Bills, both private and public are listed in the Table of Contents,
but few are actually available through this web site.
Biographies and portraits of all members are
available and indexed both by name and riding. There is limited information
available about the history of the National Assembly and the role of the
What’s Accessible: Each publication is searchable by key word and
yields fast yet imprecise results. A key word search of the debates for ‘tabac’
yielded dozens of documents with no clear winner for context.
The bill listing is a bit confusing. One version
is available in HTML by clicking on the title. Another version is available in
Portable Document Format (PDF) by clicking on the number of the bill. The
official version is only available through Publications Quebec. In any case,
there were not enough bills listed to make this reliable or useful to
Worth Noting: The biggest downfall of this otherwise logically
constructed site is the home page. This page, when it finally is loaded,
contains a stunning photo image of the National Assembly. Unfortunately, the
wait can be excruciatingly long and some browsers are incapable of displaying
such an elaborate page. Considering the cleanness and clarity of the other
pages on this site, it is a deterrent to users.
What’s available: Hansard, committee proceedings, status of bills,
votes and proceedings, order papers, status of business and others.
Information about members of the legislative
assembly is user friendly. Searchers can access information, including photos
and a biography, several different ways. Keyword searching is also available.
The Services and Information section contains a variety of information
including parliamentary tradition in Ontario, the role of the legislature and
information about the gift shop.
What’s accessible: There is no easy way to search for materials. There
appears to be no index for the debates or committees documents. Documents are
listed chronologically. For daily monitoring of the proceedings of government,
this is fine. A quick search by subject is, however, impossible.
Most disappointing, was the main index link.
It includes links to other files on the site, including Hansard and various
committee documents but does not actually include an index to the documents
themselves. As an Internet researcher, I found this use of the term
"Index" quite misleading.
Worth Noting: Files, such as the role of the legislature, were
incomplete or contained Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML) errors. The Services
and Information section includes links to all three external caucus sites.
Although they are external links, this is not clearly indicated or included in
the section labeled — Links to External Sites.
What’s Available: Immediate options include versatile keyword
searching of debates, bills or information about MLAs. Documents included from
the table of contents are for the present session only but previous sessions
are still available and searchable at the site. Included from the Table of
Contents are orders of the day, progress of bills, votes and proceedings,
Hansard and selected committee proceedings.
Information about MLAs is listed
alphabetically and by riding. This include photos and short bios as well as
contact information. Although this site does not contain extensive information
about the history of the legislative assembly or the role of parliament,
neither does it claim to offer such information. A message from the speaker
clearly indicates the role of the site is to ‘to make available, in a timely
fashion, the legislative papers of the Assembly.’
What’s accessible: Frequent visitors have fast easy access to recent
votes and even the Hansard blues. Researchers requiring more in-depth analysis
can use the search engine to find documents by subject or by document type for
all sessions. Brief explanations of documents, legislative procedures and other
important information (including copyright) are easily accessible for novice
users but not obtrusive for the seasoned visitor. In addition, the site’s
simple text-based design is easy to load and easy to follow. A text-only
version of the home page only is available for the visually impaired and users
of text browsers.
Worth Noting: Well done. Brilliantly simple layout with no fuss.
What’s available: Hansard, status of bills, an MLA directory which
includes portfolios, bios and photos. This site has included an extensive
Citizen’s Guide with lots of educational information about the legislative
process in Alberta. Special programs for students, tours and special events are
also published here. Press releases, located at the Government of Alberta site
list committee meetings.
What’s accessible: As one of the Canadian pioneers of legislative
information on the Internet, Alberta demonstrates an easy, amicable way to
search through almost five years of Hansard and other documents. This site
contains extensive search options, from MLA listings to all Hansard or only one
session. Status of bills are included but full text of legislation is not on
Worth Noting: The site contains medium-scale graphics which are
bearable because the content is so rich.
What’s Available. Hansard debates and bills are listed by date in an
"Index". Committee proceedings and other committee information are
listed separately. This site includes separate links for both visitor
information and educational information.
What’s Accessible: Hansard, committee proceedings, journals and bills
can all be searched individually or simultaneously with a versatile key word
search engine. The no nonsense approach made for very successful surfing. One
small complaint is the Index to the Site. This page lists available Hansard
files and bills and links to the Library’s Index. Once again, the use of index
is a bit misleading.
What’s available: If you can wait for the interesting yet huge
graphic to download on the home page, you will find a partial listing of
legislative documents. Hansard is there — divided each day by summary index,
which allows a search of, for example, only oral questions. Committee meeting
notices are included under legislative assembly information. Secondary
information about members, caucus membership and the speaker’s office is also
What’s accessible: There is not an index for Hansard nor is there a
global search function. Subject searching is next to impossible. Essentially
this is a document storage site — not a document collection.
Worth noting: Manitoba was a pioneer in mounting Hansard on the
web. Unfortunately, they have missed the opportunity to improve with time.
What’s available: This global reaching site, (links to New Brunswick
and Canada appear in the main table of contents area) actually provides varied
content. The legislative documents available here include journals, status of
legislation, committee membership and throne and budget speeches. Some
committee discussion papers are also available.
This bilingual site also provides
information about the legislative process in New Brunswick and press releases.
The information about members includes party standings, members alphabetically
by riding or alphabetically by party. Biographies are included for cabinet
members only. The hypertext links for members by party is an e-mail link.
What accessible: The search function searches all documents of the
Government of New Brunswick server. Surfers eager to follow verbatim debates on
the web are out of luck.
Worth noting: Top marks for layout and design but overall,
content poor. Bills and debates would be a great addition to this site.
Nova Scotia (http://www.gov.ns.ca/leg/index.htm)
What’s available: This site includes Hansard, committee membership
and schedule of meetings, committee proceedings where available and an
extensive directory of members.
Legislation is also provided, including an
index by name or number and status of legislation. The statutes are also
included here. Interestingly, Nova Scotia provides hard copy subscription
information for each document type. Visitor information, a history of Province
House and an explanation of the legislative process are also available.
What accessible: Nova Scotia has done a good job of providing a
simple table of contents to publications available. Information about the
documents is handy, but again, not obtrusive for the seasoned surfer. Once
again, a focused attempt to provide content but little or no attempt to ease
access by providing useful indexes or search engines. For a daily user, this
straightforward document delivery system works great. As a document collection,
there are too few points of access to make subject searching possible.
What’s available: PEI is one of the few legislative sites to take
advantage of the multimedia features of the web. From the home page, a
well-equipped user can view the assembly in real time or hear the proceedings
in real time. The audio proceedings are archived for those who missed it the
What’s accessible: Hansard is available in text format with a superior
search engine. A link to progress of bills is on the home page, but the
document returned no data at last attempt. Included in a nice, easy loading
side bar are links to both the PEI government telephone directory and visitor
information. The visitor guide provided is for all of PEI and does not easily
link to information about visiting the legislature.
Information about members is included in the
Table of Contents. The members list is by constituency and numbered but it is
not alphabetical by riding or name. Luckily a global search function will ferret
out details in any of the documents on the legislative web site.
Worth Noting: Real-time audio and video is an excellent use of
the power of the web. The visitor guide link and contents link take the user
out of the PEI legislative site and on to more general PEI information pages.
From a contents page, unless otherwise stated, all links should drill down.
This helps the user, who obviously chose the site to find the necessary files.
What’s available: Included here are a members directory, committee
information and information about the speaker. Membership information is
included in these documents but there are no photos or biographies.
Verbatim proceedings of the standing
committee on public accounts are available in full text under a separate link
from the home page. Information about party standings and the current
parliamentary session are listed prominently on the home page.
What’s accessible: Committee information is arranged by date — not
committee. A surfer must choose the year, then scroll through a chronological
listing to find the appropriate information. Unfortunately, the committee
meetings hypertext links are only to the meeting notifications.
Worth Noting: A very large graphic of the chamber takes up most
of the home page. Links to the documents themselves are almost buried in the
bottom right hand corner.
What’s available: Legislative documents are available at the
Government of the North West Territories Home Page under Politics. E-mail links
to members are also included in the general government phone directory. An
introductory paragraph informs visitors of the nature of the legislative process
What’s accessible: A search engine is provided for Hansard. There is
also a copy of Hansard available in WordPerfect. The entire site is also
searchable, including the government phone directory.
Worth Noting: Although legislative information appears here, this
is not a site dedicated to the legislative process. Excellent graphic design
for a general information site.
What’s available: Hansard, the Hansard Blues and the order paper are
available at the Legislative Assembly site. Members office numbers and phone
numbers are available through the general government phone directory.
Information about Cabinet is also available here. The legislation page is under
construction. The Government Leader page is also under construction.
What’s accessible: Hansard is equipped with a chronological listing
and a robust global search engine. As expected the order paper and blues are
available only for the present day (when sitting.) The Table of Contents is a
bit confusing with Legislative Assembly appearing as a sub-category of
Worth Noting: It is very disconcerting to have Table of Contents
links (government leader, legislation) with no content. Links to expanded
information should be made available when the information is present — not
Funky graphics are fun, but most visitors to
legislative sites only want one thing: information. At present, most frustrated
web searchers can contact the nearest depository library for the hard copy of
Hansard or committee reports. Granted, print sources are not as timely but for
all governments — with the exception of the federal government — they are still
available. Government document specialists in libraries anticipate a gradual move
to ceasing depository distribution of Hansard and other legislative documents
in the years to come. Hopefully, these legislatures will then be prepared to
provide clear and precise access to these document collections on the web.
Will we still be surfing the web in the year
2000? Ask the inventors of gopher technology, hailed as a revolution
seven years ago, and now virtually disappeared from the Internet!
Access concerns do not stop with a good search
engine. Access may be denied to those without Internet. Some sites are not
accessible to text-based browsers, or browsers for the visually impaired.
Canada’s attempts to provide access to legislative documents is spotty
historically. Eventually, all governments realized the value of publishing
parliamentary business and providing proper access to these collections. These
instruments of democracy are migrating to the web. The principle of access to
fair and just reporting of government business must not be forgotten.
Despite great leaps in the technological
revolution, every archivist knows that the most reliable storage medium is
still paper. Ceasing paper publication of these important historical and
cultural documents may jeopardize their accessibility in the future.