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As a programmer I'm comfortable with using version control and bug trackers, but how do politicians keep track of "issues"? Do they have any digital tools which allow them to work together on the same problem? There are giant software projects which coordinate many programmers efficiently by issue tracking and issue assigning/tagging etc. e.g. on GitHub

If every politician had some kind of GitHub account it would be pretty transparent as well, if they could answer on issues made by all kinds of people (and non-public areas as well of course, since some stuff just needs to be handled in secret).

I ask because currently I'm watching a YouTube video explaining the Cum/Ex tax hole which caused damage of around 31,000,000,000 Euros. And some politicians were even informed by a banking association. But the bug/tax hole was open way too long. It seems to me that a good bug tracker with the responsible people working with it would solve such an issue way faster by allowing people to collaborate on such problems in a structured manner with all the needed people in one digital place (e.g. law makers/politicians, bankers, professionals who understand the problem).

In short: do politicians leverage digital tools to increase collaboration? If not, how do they do it? Emails and phone calls? Wait till everybody has time or is available for a meeting? That sounds way too slow and unprofessional.

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    Managers and generals use planning software which in many ways is the equivalent of the programming tools. I wouldn't be surprised in any way if politicians used that. See a link: capterra.com/political-campaign-software – user5628 Aug 5 '17 at 19:09
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    In my experience the closest to version control is sending around Word files with "track changes" on. – Some wandering yeti Aug 5 '17 at 19:36
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    But for the bankers, Cum Ex was a feature, not a bug. – 1006a Aug 7 '17 at 6:03
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about workplace collaboration and technology rather than politics. – user1530 Aug 7 '17 at 17:29
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    How do you deal with the "it's a bug / it's a feature" dichotomy? Consider that the republicans in the US right now argue that Obamacare is fundamentally broken and needs to be #1 on the bug list. The democrats, on the other hand, are arguing that Obamacare worskforme and consider it to be one of the best features in our government! On a related note, can you imagine a SCRUM project with 100 senators on the team? – Cort Ammon Aug 8 '17 at 1:36

11 Answers 11

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Politicians, that is to say, the people that we elect, do not actually do the work of the government. Their primary job is raising funds and encouraging people to vote for them. Legislation is mostly written by their staff.

If a politician participates in writing legislation, it's not as a developer submitting changes to legislative review. It's as a manager, writing out a few lines of direction that do not work as actual law. The actual developers (staff) are then expected to fix that.

I doubt that most legislation writers use the same version control as is used for software. Unlike software, legislation is written in normal language. It has one hard line break per paragraph rather than one per statement. They are far more likely to use the revision control built into something like Microsoft Word. That is less about collaboration with a central source and more about seeing who made what changes when. It's also more consistent with how they've done it historically.

Programming benefits from having everyone involved familiar with computers. It's natural that it's on the cutting edge. Even with that, Git only dates to 2005 and Subversion to 2000 (source: Wikipedia). Older systems like SCCS and RCS only worked with changes by line, which as previously noted would have ended up being paragraphs in legislation.

Note that staff works full time on whatever legislation. They operate in small collaborative groups that actually can meet with each other to write legislation. In particular, in the United States, committees have their own staff that are true subject matter experts. You mention Europe, which may operate differently. But I suspect that it doesn't.

Legislation written in public in version control would be a great idea for transparency. Unfortunately, most politicians are more interested in getting reelected than transparency. You can see this in California (US), where there is a system allowing law changes by public referendum. Politicians are endlessly, albeit privately, complaining about how these make their jobs more difficult. So any progress towards transparency tends to be made in fits and starts by newer legislators.

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    Your answer assumes that version control doesn't work for text files, which is a very incorrect assumption. – corsiKa Aug 6 '17 at 15:03
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    This answer is very confused. 1) US politicians may only be interested in reelection, but that's not necessarily the case elsewhere in the world. 2) VCS doesn't care about lines, you can checkin binary files. Your diff utility is what matters. 3) Not all VCS have a central source and all are also concerned with who/what/when. 4) VCS is very far from cutting edge: CVS is 25 years old, RCS is 35. Both would work just fine. 5) A VCS doesn't have to be public, it could be used internally. 6) Again, US-bias. My politicians are just fine with a public process. – isanae Aug 6 '17 at 17:15
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    @isanae: VCS is very far from cutting edge -- As evidenced by the recent WannaCry ransomware attack, simply updating computers is "cutting edge" to some people. While I understand (and agree with) your point about the age of many VCS packages, I think Brythan's point is that VCS requires all users to be technologically savvy to use properly. – tonysdg Aug 7 '17 at 1:57
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    @tonysdg Then he should remove the incorrect assertion about RCS being lined-based (which is nonsensical) and VCS being too recent in general. – isanae Aug 7 '17 at 2:06
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    Version control can work just fine for text files, it's a well-used idea to use line-breaks after every sentence to allow line-based VCS to deal with text just fine. You then use two line breaks to denote paragraphs. When rendering you render single line breaks as a space (or two), and two line breaks as a real line break. – Delioth Aug 7 '17 at 16:42
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Do politicians use bug trackers or version control etc.?

This is hilarious. Many of them barely use email.

Version control software is pretty much specific to software engineering. Even disciplines that rely on evolving documents like legal practice either don't use it or are limited to Word's "Track changes" feature - or manual change markup.

The main technology politicians use is delegation. They don't write the legislation or the regulations. In some cases they will barely even read it. Instead they have a staff that keeps track of these things. That staff may be somewhat more organised. Usually they will have a set of files into which submissions from the public may be categorised. If they get a very large volume of calls or letters on a specific issue the staff will summarise it and raise it to the politician.

The UK system also informally includes what is called a "surgery", which is for dealing with person-specific or very local issues. If you're having trouble with social housing bureaucracy or want to prevent an unpopular piece of property development, you write to your MP or come see them at specific hours. They can then choose to write letters on your behalf to the responsible authority. There's no formal authority to these letters, but they're much more likely to be answered, and if the MP doesn't like the answer they can make a cause out of it.

There have been some limited cases of using issue trackers for specific things e.g. https://www.fixmystreet.com/ . Generalised ones tend to disaster. The UK has a petitions website (basically ignored); at one point they had a "nominate regulations for removal" site, but after that was astroturfed into saying that maternity leave should be ended as the highest priority, that too was abandoned.

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While this may not directly answer your question in a day-to-day sense, congress.gov (formerly thomas.gov) allows public access to revision history for all bills going through either chamber of the US congress. For instance, this is the revision history for H.R. 1628, which is the American Healthcare Act of 2017. At present time of writing you can see:

  • The full "source code" of the bill
  • The revision (amendment) history of the bill
  • The lifecycle of the bill (Actions tab, showing the progress of the text towards becoming law)
  • Findings from congressional groups, such as the Congressional Budget Office (you can think of this as roughly analogous to a rollout cost estimate for a new service)

This is probably the most direct analogue to issue and revision tracking you're likely to see in politics. By and large, staffers work in email and word documents, their "issue tracking" is largely done by speaking to one another and hashing out the details. You can think of staffers as an extensive "code review" process, whereby a politician directs his staffers to add some feature to the bill, they draft some changes, and use email to code-review those changes before handing the product off to their boss - who then takes the bill and submits it as a sort of "pull request" to the main legislative body.

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    If you look at that bill in particular, the bill itself is a diff from some previous iteration of law. Makes deciphering the bill purposely obtuse. – casey Aug 6 '17 at 12:02
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    @casey Think of it as a "pull request", which represents a proposed patch to currently-deployed law, but which also contains multiple commits (amendments) within the bill as it evolves. Some bills create brand-new functionality, some modify current functionality, but they're all just proposed diffs that contributors need to sign off on. – Knetic Aug 6 '17 at 16:36
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    @Knetic: You may also want to note that a lot of amendments are deliberately intended to be voted down, just so the politician can tell their constituents "I tried to do X, but those nasty other politicians wouldn't let me!" See for example the 2011 RSC budget for a case where this almost blew up (the amendment nearly passed when it was "supposed" to fail). – Kevin Aug 6 '17 at 21:06
  • @Kevin it's a misstatement to say those type of amendments are "meant" to fail. Sure, one can almost always foresee that they will fail, but your characterization implies that the amendment doesn't reflect a principle that legislator genuinely prefers, anecdotal instances aside. And really, a legislator will be criticized either way. Not offering such amendments equals doing nothing / not fighting for the people, etc. It's a form of putting yourself and others on the record and is a form of transparency at the end of the day. – A.fm. Aug 12 '17 at 16:31
  • @A.fm.: Poison pill amendments are a thing that happens, too, though they tend to be a bit less high profile. – Kevin Aug 12 '17 at 18:11
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A political office isn't quite the same as software development (citation needed). However there is software designed to help organise a politicians office.

Beside the obvious productivity and HR software there is software to manage canvassing (eg, ecanvasser) And CRM software targeted at politicians (civicrm).

The fact is that most politicians are essentially bosses (pointed haired or not) and using an issue tracker is not part of their skillset. Just as few CEOs use github to manage company issues; few headteachers use github to manage their schools; few doctors use github to manage patient progress. Similarly few politicians use issue tracking software. Github is intended for software development, and may not work well outside of that sector (however if you think there is a gap in the market...)

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The problem is too big

TL;DR: 300 million people are more difficult to manage than 65 million lines of code.

Software is simple and well-defined

A very large software development project such as Microsoft Windows has about 1000 people working on it. The programmers are split into smaller teams, working on well-defined sub-tasks. In this situation, GitHub and similar tools are very useful for tracking issues like, "Module 'foo' is failing test number 23."

The object the developers act upon is a software package. For example, MS Windows has about 65 million lines of code, which again are split into well-defined sub-modules. If the developers want to test the effects of a change, they can run the software and see what happens, as many times as necessary.

Government is complicated and messy

Now, consider the US government making a new law. The object the law acts upon is The United States of America, a nation of more than 300 million people.

People may be subdivided by geography, income, political belief, or other factors; but unlike software modules, they have minds of their own. In principle, all of them can take part in developing the "product" of legislation, by voting, lobbying, protesting, and other means. Testing is usually impossible; either the law is in force, or it isn't.

The law interacts with:

  • Other laws

  • Public opinion

  • Economic conditions

  • The actions of foreign governments

  • Physical reality (eg. technological developments, natural disasters)

All of these things in turn depend on each other, generating complex and unpredictable feedback loops.

Conclusion

Government is much, much more complex than any software development problem. While officials do carry out online consultation exercises and the like, the scope of the problems they face is daunting. They try to identify loopholes and predict consequences ahead of time, but they do not always succeed. Even understanding the issues is a huge challenge, and the best bug-tracking system in the world would be of very limited help.

Government is a social institution, not a software package. Social institutions are much harder to modify successfully, as XKCD illustrates:

xkcd comic

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    Governments have a fair share of technically well defined problems aswell, like the mentioned tax hole. – lama12345 Aug 7 '17 at 12:36
  • @lama12345: Tax loopholes are well-defined and simple to close after they are discovered. The difficult problem is finding them. More generally, well-defined technical problems are often not handled by government directly, but delegated to an autonomous entity like a railway or utility company. – Royal Canadian Bandit Aug 7 '17 at 13:01
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    The tax loophole was open for over 20 years and there were at least 5 whistle blowers. Doesn't this suggest that some governments are unable to keep track of their "issues" and would improve with some kind of digital bug tracker? I just can't imagine how inefficiently those organisations (in this case the finance office) deal with such problems internally. More or less such state departments are the autonomous entities you speak about? – lama12345 Aug 7 '17 at 13:19
  • 1) Situations like this tax loophole, where a policy is clearly broken and straightforward to fix, are very rare and not representative of what government normally does. (So it's not surprising this one was handled poorly.) Millions of people have strong and mutually contradictory opinions on what government policy should be. Sifting the signal from the noise and deciding what to do about it is much harder than processing bug reports through GitHub. By comparison, Microsoft has it easy; regardless of political affiliation, its customers mostly just want Windows to run smoothly and not crash. – Royal Canadian Bandit Aug 7 '17 at 14:03
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    One very intentional choice by the original developers of the United States was to make the law more modular. Instead of focusing so much power at the federal level, it tried to leave as much as possible to cities, counties, and states. This meant that states could develop and test laws in isolation of each other, and if the tests passed other states could replicate the laws. Instead of a law immediately impacting 300m people, it might only impact 2m. This is less true today, and states have much fewer rights than they used to - but that was the original design. – Knetic Aug 8 '17 at 23:18
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Most legislative bodies have what is commonly called a "Law Review Commission" which is the main body that fulfills the "bug fixing" role you identify. I spent a summer working for one associated with the Michigan State legislature.

A law review commission is charged with identifying "bugs" in the law and suggesting fixes for them. But, generally speaking, they are woefully understaffed to handle this task in any comprehensive manner.

For example, in Michigan in the early 1990s, the Law Review Commission was led by a law professor who devoted perhaps 200 hours a year to the job in exchange for a small stipend, who coordinated the efforts of perhaps a dozen volunteer commission members who devoted perhaps 50 hours a year to the job, and a couple of law student interns who worked mostly in the summer for perhaps 300 hours a year each. This was a total of about 1400 person-hours a year, almost half unpaid, with almost no other budget except use of the law school's existing Westlaw subscription for the professor and the interns, and funds to print its annual report. The commission had no office space of its own, but used conference rooms at the law school to hold meetings for free.

The end product of the commission's work each year was an annual report distributed to legislators on the committees of the state house and state senate with jurisdiction over the Law Review Commission that would usually address perhaps half a dozen technical defects in the laws on the books.

Needless to say, this is completely inadequate to capture even a tiny share of the flaws in existing legislation known to members of the executive branch, or even the flaws that judges specifically address as requiring remedies in court opinions (although sometimes judges would send us courtesy copies of their opinions identifying legislative problems in hope of securing legislative action through proper channels).

The reality is that "bug fixing" legislation comes almost entirely from the initiatives of chief political relations officials in government departments (who go by myriad titles), from an Ombudsman in governments that have them (e.g. the U.S. Taxpayer Advocate), from the personal initiative of elected officials and their small legislative staffs (a fairly small subset of their total staffs), from bar association committees, from the work of various "think tanks", from a handful of highly sophisticated and politically savvy constituents who communicate recommendations to legislators whom they know, and from lobbyists, on a fairly ad hoc basis. Sometimes a state auditor or the General Accountability Office at the federal level, will also make recommendations.

This answer is based primarily on my personal experience working for a Law Review Commission in law school, as a staff member for a Congressman as an undergraduate, and as a law partner of a state legislator in my professional life including discussions with visiting legislators from other countries participating in exchange programs.

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They use or should use Document Management. The other most common alternative short of that is shared drives either on premise or cloud based. All regulated industries use document management to control the versioning and flow of their documents.

Document Management as described on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Document_management_system

Document Management is to documents what version control systems and SDLC is to code.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review – bytebuster Aug 8 '17 at 21:04
  • The question was "Do politicians use bug trackers or version control etc.?" The answer is "They use document management", not just them but any regulated industry also uses document management to manage their documents. Documents can be anything from contracts to laws. The wiki link does a good job of describing the features of document management but doesn't list systems themselves. – HungryPipo Aug 9 '17 at 14:45
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In general, legislators do not use a formal version control system like software developers do. However, at least one jurisdiction actually does use version control.

Washington D.C. Uses Git for Version Control of Laws

Washington D.C. uses git as the authoritative repository for municipal laws. Ars Technica published an article by a member of D.C.'s open government advisory group describing this in more detail. It also features an interesting legal change: the author was able to change the law by making a change an issuing a pull request.

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When it comes to version control, at least, there are some things like that happening. Some of it is in fact available on GitHub. See e.g. https://github.com/statengeneraal/laws-markdown for Dutch law. It's no longer updated, but has a good description in English including links to others. It didn't take me a lot of Googling to find this.

You're not the first to think about this either. Here's an excellent TED talk by Clay Shirky: Institutions vs. collaboration.

That's all mostly about opening up legislation to the public, however, not about what's actually being used within politics and government agencies right now.

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Keep in mind that politicians can be in the legislative or the executive branches and can be local, state, or national. This is pretty well defined in the U.S. but I understand that there's more overlap in parliamentary governments. Our local Public Works Department (Burlington, VT, USA) uses See Click Fix which allows citizens to submit infrastructure problems to a portal. The Public Works Department can then respond to the submission, fix the problem, or explain why they won't be fixing it. These submissions are tracked publicly, they can be up-voted, and you can see how long they've been waiting for a response/fix.

A lot of comments have focused on politicians, but the question might be hinting at bureaucracy in general. Technology that would help civil servants collaborate and track issues would be very helpful if it was implemented well, was willingly adopted by those civil servants, and used by people who had the public's best interest in mind. These conditions are sometimes present and sometimes not. Government in the US at any level is not know for it's technological savvy, but there there are some exceptions I'm aware of such as the Utah DOT.

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I think the analogy is somewhat misguided but I would submit that lawmaking has in fact been using version control and testing for a long time.

Taking France as an example, most statutes stem from what's called a projet de loi, submitted by the government (and therefore drafted by professional civil servants working for a ministry). It has to be checked by the conseil d'État and then by various parliamentary commissions, which result in several written evaluations of the proposed text.

Beside posturing, the debates in parliament are mostly dedicated to fixing technical problems and changing nuances of the text. It's not like the overall policy is completely open and up for debate (it depends on the results of the previous election and the plans of the government). So what's being discussed is not the what but the how. This is done through amendments, which means you can check who submitted which change (a “diff” if you will). And in many cases, a new law consists of a long list of modifications of existing law (along the lines of “article such and such is replaced by …”) so again a series of diffs.

After a proposed law has been debated, voted on and adopted by both chambers of parliament, it can still be sent back by the president or submitted to the constitutional court. If you think about it, there is therefore a lot of structure in the process and many safeguards in place to catch technical mistakes.

At the same time, many observers have lamented the decreasing “quality” of the law being voted but the reason for that are political and I don't think software could solve that problem. And very often loopholes subsist because, and not in spite, of lobbyists (your “bankers” and “professionals”).

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