New York Senate Site Relaunches With “Listening” Features

The redesign is meant to increase public participation in the legislative process and make possible more efficient communication between New Yorkers and their representatives.


New NYSenate.gov homepage

New NYSenate.gov homepage

The New York State Senate website relaunched today with a mobile-first face lift and a new feature that shows senators up-to-the-minute constituent support for and opposition to proposed bills. The redesign is meant to increase public participation in the legislative process and make possible more efficient communication between New Yorkers and their representatives.

In addition to looking much better, on mobile and desktop, the new interactive features on the New York Senate site are, observers say, the most innovative of any legislative website in the country.

The old layout for individual senators' pages.

The old layout for individual senators’ pages.

Before contacting their senator, New York residents must first create an account by providing their name, email, and home address. From the user dashboard, residents can follow issues, look up bills, and write to their senator. Any feedback given—petitions signed or bills supported with an “aye” or opposed with a “nay”—is sent, not to the author of the petition or sponsor of the bill, but to the senator that represents that New Yorker.

New layout for individual senators' pages.

New layout for individual senators’ pages.

Constituents’ support for and opposition to bills on the active list—the list of bills expected to make it to the floor for a vote that day—is shown to senators in easy-to-read bar graphs right alongside the bills up for a vote, and if the senator refreshes the page the graphs update in real time.

A joint message from Senators John Flanagan and Jeff Klein states:

This groundbreaking tool for democracy provides users with fresh and interactive ways to make their voices heard and will better spark meaningful two-way dialogue between legislators and the constituents they represent.

Andrew Hoppin, the former chief information officer of the New York State Senate, who oversaw the launch of the original NYSenate.gov, tells Civicist that the new site “sets a new bar for legislative websites in the world.”

“As the team that built the prior version in 2009, under Democratic leadership,” he said, “we’re really excited that the new Republican leadership didn’t roll back the transparency and open government initiatives but actually doubled down on them.”

Hoppin says the site is open source, runs on Drupal, and could easily serve as a model for other legislative websites. It is fully integrated with Bluebird, the open-source CRM Hoppin’s team built during his tenure.

Hoppin points out that while the previous site was primarily about getting information out into the world, the new site is also about collecting information. He said the aye/nay voting function allows the senators to scale up their collection of constituent feedback to an unprecedented degree.

Every bill page asks "Do you support this legislation?"

Every bill page asks “Do you support this legislation?”

Hoppin also praised the “Issues” function, which makes it easy for constituents to follow the bills and news updates that are of interest to them without having to sort the wheat from the chaff every time they visit the site.

Find and follow issues of interest.

Find and follow issues of interest.

“I give the Senate credit for doing something really ambitious,” Hoppin said, “pushing the envelope beyond what is tried and true.”

In a statement emailed to Civicist, Seamus Kraft, the executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, said:

A citizen’s right to petition their government is fundamental to American democracy. But that right is often limited to those with enough money, time and influence to make their elected officials actually listen. With its new website, the New York State Senate is taking necessary steps to secure that right for as many New Yorkers as possible.

He went on to praise the “listening” function that the platform provides:

Tools that are just one-way opinion blasters from the outside, and that do not give equal weight to the needs of users inside legislatures who have to make sense out of the noise, overwhelm resource-strapped staff and make it virtually impossible for meaningful dialogue to happen. After giving the new New York Senate website a test drive, it appears that Ryan Blair [lead technologist at the New York Senate and, full disclosure, a Civic Hall member] and his talented team get that implicitly. They not only encourage citizens to participate, but empower staff and members to truly listen and act on what they hear.”

It will be interesting to see which state legislatures follow New York’s lead in the coming years.