A digital push for more legislative participation

MAPLE creates platform to view, testify on bills

ONE OF THE most well-worn complaints among political watchers in Massachusetts is that the government can be, well, hard to watch. The state Legislature is one of the least transparent lawmaking bodies in the country – exempt from public records laws, with decisions often made in closed committee sessions with little revelation about who voted for or against a given piece of legislation.

Being generally outraged about local government on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites may be cathartic, but is perhaps not the most efficient way to push for change. Now a team of volunteers is taking a swing at making online engagement with the Legislature feel a bit more civil, structured, and achievable for individuals and organizations. 

The website MAPLE (the Massachusetts Platform for Legislative Engagement) launched this month, focused on encouraging and facilitating public testimony on legislation. The Legislature does collect and post some public testimony already, but the MAPLE group is trying to improve what they see as an imperfect system. A motivating question for the co-creators was whether the online spaces where the public gathers to express views online could “be designed better to allow us to channel our energy for productive improvements for the communities that we touch?”

“It can be difficult at times to understand who our legislators are listening to when they make decisions,” said MAPLE co-founder Matt Victor at a launch event. Victor, a lawyer at the Boston firm Choate, also participated in a panel (moderated by this reporter) featuring Danielle Allen, professor of political philosophy at Harvard; Axios Boston reporter Mike Deehan; and MAPLE co-founder Nathan Sanders, a data scientist.

MAPLE’s goals are to make a public archive of legislative testimony, to standardize and demystify the testimony process, and to create an online environment that encourages thoughtful interaction. Over the next year, the team expects to expand out from allowing people and organizations to submit and follow testimony to include translations, lobbying activity, and voting records. 

Sanders, who pushed for an environmental protection law regulating sewage reporting, said he felt inspired by the successful outcome after years of lobbying. But, he said, “I also got to see how hard it is to get people to mobilize in that way, how hard it is to help them understand how they can have their voice heard in the somewhat arcane process that we have in our state and other states today, and I also got to see what it looks like when you’re sort of shadow-boxing – when not every side of an issue is on the record and sharing their opinions in a public forum.”

MAPLE has been built over the past two years by an entirely volunteer group of developers, project managers, and marketers, Victor said. The site operates as “a nonpartisan, open source, and nonprofit project,” pulling data from the Legislature’s somewhat infamously unwieldy website and moderated by the volunteers.

Some similar sites and programs exist, but geared toward a more corporate and organizational user base. InstaTrac and the LexisNexis program State Net, for instance, are paid legislative tracking tools designed for professionals. MAPLE requires a manual sign up for everyone and approval from the administrators for organizations, but the program is free to use.

Panelists tied the current state of public engagement directly to the increasing scarcity of local news organizations. 

“We have seen an incredible erosion of local journalism over the last two decades,” Allen said, in part because of social media and the move to digital platforms. “There’s really significant consequences to that, because all of that local journalism was the infrastructure of democracy,” she said, not just from a reporting side but also because public notices about meetings had to be posted in local papers. Part of her hope for MAPLE, she said, is that it helps to fill that infrastructural “vacuum” for the public.

But that means people and organizations would have to use it and it would need to be on the Legislature’s radar. 

Meet the Author

Jennifer Smith

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development. Her work and commentary have appeared in WBUR, GBH News, Harvard Public Health Magazine, and Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook. She has co-hosted MassINC’s Massachusetts politics and policy podcast The Horse Race since 2018, interviewing newsmakers, journalists, and elected officials across the state.

That frustration that Sanders expressed is a common one for journalists, Deehan noted. Bills will often cycle through Beacon Hill over and over, never making it out of committees for no clear reason. 

In theory, Deehan said, “this will be one more piece of ammunition to say, ‘There’s all this testimony on MAPLE suggesting that this is incredibly popular.’ Is that going to change the minds of those lawmakers? Maybe not. Is it maybe going to change the mind of some of their constituents? Hopefully.”