Dec19

At The OpenGov Foundation, we believe that for the public to secure better outcomes from their government, the technological and cultural “pain points” felt by those serving on the inside must be addressed.  As Congressional staffers and contractors, we felt this pain first-hand.  Making the daily grind of public service and citizenship more efficient, effective and user-friendly is why we exist.

To better understand the needs of users working at all levels of government, we regularly hold discussions with elected officials, chiefs of staff, clerks, press secretaries, legislative directors and staff assistants.  What we’ve learned paints a picture of workplaces — from City Hall to Capitol Hill — struggling to adapt to the Internet Age.  But there is hope: many good people are working hard to change the culture of governance and technology from the inside.  

In our last post, we talked about how important it is to know how to navigate the political process if you want to be heard by your elected officials. In this final post we’ll discuss a shift in the citizen-government relationship.  

Part 3: Technology Is Changing The Citizen-Government Relationship…And Government Can’t Keep Up

Tech Is Changing the Citizen-Government Relationship…

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“If access to our legislation increases in a way that the average American can understand then  people aren’t as reliant on media sources that are often biased” –Legislative staffer

 

“The way we communicate with our constituency is unbelievably narrow compared to where we’re going to need to be a decade from now . . . these are the people that are consuming everything in sight but they are also the people that are noisy beyond anything that we’ve ever seen.” –Legislative staffer

 

“They’re starting to say, ‘let me hand you the piece of legislation. Don’t look at the news report, look at the piece of legislation, and then tell me what you think.” –Legislative staffer

 

We’re in the middle of a communications revolution. Members of Congress are already branching out onto social media, searching for new ways to communicate with their constituents and each other. As one staffer pointed out, Americans are beginning to turn away from traditional news conglomerates for information, and looking for more direct sources, like streaming video or Twitter. But many elected officials and staffers remain wary of scathing comments sections and the ugliness of anonymous Internet correspondence.

 

Congress is also struggling to find better ways to understand the American public. Running traditional subject polling still involves using landlines, leaving out an increasingly large swath of the American public.

 

This raises a whole host of interesting questions on how Congress will adapt for the future, and how the relationship between Congressional offices and everyday Americans will change.

 

…And Government Can’t Keep Up

 

“One of the reasons why we have so many problems in America today is that the bureaucracy doesn’t regulate at the speed of technology.” –Chief of Staff

 

The complicated manner in which Congress creates legislation slows everything down. To some extent, that’s exactly how it should be–the process (supposedly) ensures the proper vetting of legislation. But it’s not just the many ponderous steps from introduction to committee to vote that takes awhile. The process of writing the bills themselves takes a great deal of time and patience. One legislative director mentioned spending a full year on just one bill. After long periods of researching and drafting and editing and collaborating, bills go through evaluation by legislative council. And a lot of this still happens on paper or PDFs.

 

Bills also typically alter existing laws, which are referenced in the legislative language by official title, and which require constant reference to those laws in order to be understood. One legislative staffer admitted that the time-consuming nature of doing this actually causes him to put off important work. Others admitted that the complex legalese in which bills are written don’t just make them less accessible to the public, they make it harder for those inside of Congress to understand the implications of bills. And altering PDFs and keeping track of changes and versions of documents remains complicated.

 

The slow movement of legislation through Congress means that our government can’t keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation. The staffers we spoke with worried about the societal implications of government failing to regulate technologies like self-driving cars and drones in a timely manner.

 

Simplifying legislative language, streamlining the drafting process, or providing better ways to reference and display the laws legislation alters could make small but essential increases in the speed of legislating.

 

Though the problems we’ve discussed in the last three posts are most obvious at the Federal level, they exist at all levels of government–local, state, and federal. We’ll address local government issues in future posts.

 

Most problems faced by American government today can’t be fixed with technology alone. But better tools and processes would allow staffers to focus on what matters, and create an effective government, that better understands the needs of the American people, and better addresses the complicated issues of the 21st Century.

 

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Dec12

In their quest for innovative startups changing the world, Alexis Ohanian and The Verge traveled to Washington, D.C. for the season finale of Small Empires.  The episode — on the Capitol Bells app — featured The OpenGov Foundation’s co-founder Seamus Kraft, and look at OpenGov’s Madison open source online policymaking platform, which the Obama Administration is currently using to crowdsource federal agency guidelines for public engagement.

Small-Empires-OpenGov-Screenshot

Watch Alexis Ohanian with The OpenGov Foundation’s Seamus Kraft on 

Improving Democracy with User-Friendly Open Source+Open Data 



Key Quotes

“I get out of bed every morning trying to give people a voice in what happens in their government.  Whether it’s state, county, local or federal level.  There are so many people in this country who are brilliant, who have good ideas, who are crying out for government to meet their needs…that aren’t heard because they aren’t rich.  They don’t have lobbyists.  They don’t have influence.  And they don’t get through.  And where technology comes into that is it makes government fundamentally able to listen.

 

“The government stems of the people, by the people and it’s supposed to work for the people. and that all adds up to accountability.  It was baked into our Constitution, and it’s hard to find around here sometimes today.

 

“For many, the PDF is the apotheosis of Internet-based document technology.  It works, but it doesn’t work as well as it could.  Explaining the value proposition behind open data, and all the things it can do [for] you, is the first place to start.  I think that the technology community has not done a good enough job telling that story.  We can help you, government people, do your jobs for citizens way more efficiently and effectively, at lower cost, with open data and open source software.”



Click Here to Watch the Full Episode of Small Empires: “Can An App Get Americans to Care About Government Again?”

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At The OpenGov Foundation, we believe that for the public to secure better outcomes from their government, the technological and cultural “pain points” felt by those serving on the inside must be addressed.  As Congressional staffers and contractors, we felt this pain first-hand.  Making the daily grind of public service and citizenship more efficient, effective and user-friendly is why we exist.

To better understand the needs of users working at all levels of government, we regularly hold discussions with elected officials, chiefs of staff, clerks, press secretaries, legislative directors and staff assistants.  What we’ve learned paints a picture of workplaces — from City Hall to Capitol Hill — struggling to adapt to the Internet Age.  But there is hope: many good people are working hard to change the culture of governance and technology from the inside.  

 

In our last post, we discussed the difficulties Congressional offices face in dealing with public input. Communication plays a huge role inside of government as well.

 

Part 2: Understanding the Political Process

Savvy Politicking Often Trumps Smart Policy

 

“I was surprised to see how little actually rested on the merit of policy content, and how much of it was the finesse of a gentleman that was willing to put his name next to somebody else’s in the committee.” — Congressional Committee Staffer

 

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Personal relationships remain key to getting anything done, but getting face time can be difficult. Building a coalition to support a bill means getting on other members’ radar, and that takes a lot of effort, much of which still centers around press time. Some Congressmen are willing to get creative–we heard about one Representative who personally called each staffer in the offices of Congressmen he wanted as co-sponsors for a bill. Another spends an hour every week on local television talking about his legislative agenda. But most Congressmen aren’t as willing to stick their necks out, and it’s difficult for staffers to find ways to build coalitions around bills.

 

Congressional offices in search of media attention, trying to show they hold their constituents’ interests at heart, or attempting to bring an important issue into national discussion often introduce “messaging” bills–legislation they don’t intend to go anywhere. Thousands of these bills appear in the House every year. But because they’re introduced as official legislation, and it can be difficult to distinguish them from serious attempts at legislating, these bills “gum up the works” and make it difficult for members to get to the real business at hand.

 

The staffers we spoke with suggested that better forums for discussing issues and vetting ideas without officially introducing bills could help reduce this glut of fluff while still providing members of Congress with ways to be heard.  A more casual forum might also reduce the pressure offices feel to keep their ideas close to the chest until they’re ready to make an official statement.  Collecting input on ideas before the drafting process could also improve the content of bills that are introduced.

 

Understanding the Legislative Process Remains Crucial To Being Heard

 

“It’s impossible for one person to understand every aspect [of an issue] and every economic sector that’s affected by it.” –Congressional Legislative Director

 

“Policy ideas in the abstract are not really worth much at all.” –Congressional Legislative Director

 

Legislators don’t just have to negotiate with other members’ offices to get bills passed. Creating a piece of legislation involves an intricate dance between stakeholders, often over single words such as “shall” and “must”. Lawmakers have to balance the demands of various government agencies, the desires and concerns of their constituents, the coverage of drama-hungry media, and the direction of leadership alongside the effectiveness of policy content. Committee chairmanship and seniority hold a huge amount of weight in whether a bill will go anywhere once it’s been introduced. During all of this, the bill travels through a maze of steps, from subcommittee, to committee, House floor, and so on.

 

The complexities of the issues Congress handles means that large chunks of bills come from policy experts like industry representatives. Offices simply can’t understand the nuances of every issue they tackle–they need outside help.

 

But according to the staffers we spoke with, if you’re an expert hoping to influence or present a piece of legislation, understanding how to navigate the complex processes of government holds just as much importance as understanding the issue at hand. If you don’t know which committee to approach, or which members, or how, your ideas will probably go unheard, no matter their merit or importance.

 

Having a more direct means of gathering outside input on bills and evaluating expertise based on merit rather than political savvy could ensure that a wider range of perspectives are heard and lawmakers get the help they need to create effective legislation.

 

Next up: Technology and the citizen-government relationship

 

 

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Dec5

 

“We had phones flying, Tweets flying, all of this input trying to get in, and the U.S. House of Representatives did not give us the technology to simply do our jobs, to listen, to serve the needs of our constituents. So we built it ourselves, and that required a massive shift in culture internally.”

– Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation and former Congressional staffer, in Mozilla’s The Open Standard blog.  

 

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Making the daily grind of public service and citizenship more efficient, effective, and user-friendly is why we exist. To better understand the needs of users working at all levels of government, we regularly hold discussions with elected officials, chiefs of staff, clerks, press secretaries, legislative directors and staff assistants.  What we’ve learned paints a picture of workplaces — from City Hall to Capitol Hill — struggling to adapt to the Internet Age.  But there is hope: many good people are working hard to change the culture of governance and technology from the inside.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll share some of these user stories.  First up: a look at the U.S. House of Representatives, and what tech tools staffers have — or do not — to do the people’s business.

 

Incoming Communications are Crushing Congress

“We went from receiving 29,000 emails in 2012 to 54,000 in 2013 and that doesn’t even include MoveOn.org, Change.org.”  – Congressional Legislative Staffer

 

“These are heartbreaking letters and you want to be able to answer them fully, but the truth is the medium doesn’t allow for that . . .” — Congressional Legislative Staffer

 

Staff in the U.S. House of Representatives spend the bulk of their time corresponding with constituents. It was heartening to hear how seriously they take this responsibility. But a lot of time and effort gets wasted by repetitive work, sluggish systems, and multiple data formats that are far from open, modern or interoperable.

 

When a constituent contacts their Congressman, a staffer reads the letter, fax, phone message or email, then drafts a response. That draft then goes through multiple stages of internal editing, ping-ponging from a proprietary Constituent Management System, to printed paper, to Microsoft Word, PDFs and more.  The process can take days, weeks, or even as much as a month. None of this correspondence gets posted online, so there is no good way for staff to track similar inquiries and direct constituents to previously answered questions.

 

The rise of petitions, electronic and snail-mail, complicate the matter. When offices receive thousands of form letters and e-petitions, it’s difficult to determine which ones come from their constituents.  And advocacy platforms often do not provide Congressional recipients with a way to respond to the “on-behalf-of” sender. Staffers from both sides of the aisle also bemoaned the well-intentioned but questionable legislative interpretations and information advocacy websites provide.

 

While there are significant differences from one Congressional office to another, these three insights were universal: special interest mass mailings — electronic or paper-based — are virtually ignored; the best way for a citizen to get timely answers back from Congress is by sending substantive, personally-crafted messages; and Congress desperately needs better ways to communicate with their constituents.

 

A Broken Vendor Ecosystem and Outdated Rules Beget Bad Congressional Technology

“Part of the problem is that the vendor ecosystem is so bad, the tools we have are so bad.”

– Legislative Staffer

 

“We can’t even A/B test.  [The private sector was] A/B testing 10 years ago with commercial tools . . .we got a WYSIWYG editor for the first time last year . . .” — Congressional Legislative Staffer

 

One staffer shared the story of a dedicated colleague who devoted himself to crafting detailed responses to every constituent letter that crossed his desk, occasionally spending entire days on a single one. But with the dated technology Congress must use to communicate, the office couldn’t determine if these missives were ever read — or even reached — their constituents.

 

Congress remains a decade behind the public sector in terms of communications technology. The staffers we spoke with said they have few ways to run analytics on the emails they send, and struggle to perform even the most basic tasks, like archiving and retrieving information. Stringent procurement rules means most offices are stuck with, as one chief of staff put it, “the same 3-4 vendors everyone loves to hate.”  Getting updated technology is hampered or prevented by institutional restrictions and shrinking budgets.

 

For example, current Congressional rules prohibit the use of free and open source software. Rules that made sense in the days of snail mail also severely limit the ability of staff to proactively keep constituents informed, making it nearly impossible to reach the 700,000+ Americans each Congressman represents.

 

But there is cause for cautious optimism.  Each Congressional staffer and elected official we’ve spoken with is brimming with ideas about how they could serve better with better technology at their disposal.  One suggested posting correspondence online, so the public could better understand their representative’s positions, and actually see how their Congressman does his or her job. Another mentioned tracking trends in inquiries to understand their district’s top concerns, and where the pulse of the people is at any given moment.  A third dreamt of moving more correspondence to social media, where citizens could receive a timely response, instead of one that slogs through multiple systems, document formats and layers of duplicative bureaucracy.

 

Imagine if you could engage with Congress about the top issues of the day as easily as you do with Facebook friends or Twitter followers.  Our user research suggests that is what everyone — from citizens to their elected officials and staff — wants.  And that’s the world we aim to build here at The OpenGov Foundation.  We hope that you’ll keep following along as we learn what it will take to get there.

 

Next up: Understanding the Legislative Process.

 

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Nov27

Open Thanksgiving

We have much to be thankful for at The OpenGov Foundation. It’s been a year of steady growth, full of great code and better people.  Here’s what we – and some of the extended OpenGov Family - gave thanks for around the Thanksgiving table in 2014.

OpenGov Thanksgiving

 The (immediate) OpenGov Foundation Family 2014

  • I’m most thankful for my family
  • I’m particularly thankful for a government that can be explored, one which groups like The OpenGov Foundation and, if necessary, the courts, can in fact hold accountable for the American people. I know there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think at Thanksgiving it’s important that we look at the cup as half full and not at the amount that could be added.
  • My family
  • My girlfriend
  • I give thanks for the privilege of helping preserve democracy by making communities better informed so they can make better choices.
  • I give thanks for hugs from my grandson, kisses from my granddaughter and the biggest, lovingest eyes you ever saw in my second granddaughter…and lots more.
  • My country, and that it remains free and a beacon of hope for the world.
  • Phish
  • Sunrises
  • I am thankful for: the Internet
  • dogs (like every year)
  • Everyone that is supportive, patient, and understanding with me.
  • The privilege of getting to earn a living working on things I really care about
  • The safety, health, and comfort I’ve been afforded.
  • DC Noodles
  • New York City
  • And also cats.
  • Hardworking public servants — staffers, career bureaucrats and elected officials — who never get enough credit or thanks for the jobs they do.
  • James Madison
  • My amazing dev team
  • Learning new things
  • Coffee
  • The Knight Foundation and their amazing staff
  • The Shuttleworth Fellows and Foundation Family
  • PaperMate Flair Medium pens (black, blue and red)
  • The men and women in uniform who secure my freedom from oppression
  • My freedom of speech and expression
  • Airplanes
  • Waldo Jaquith
  • Dan Whaley & the Hypothes.is Team
  • Abhi Nemani
  • I’m giving thanks for having the privilege to be part of an extraordinary core community of thoughtful, caring and ambitious people that are giving everything they have (and particularly forgoing a more selfish, profit driven paradigm) in order to focus on creating something powerful for the common good.
  • Our amazing accountant and legal team
  • My family
  • My friends
  • My chocolate labs
  • The Indianapolis Colts
  • The OpenGov Foundation
  • The Internet
  • Craft beer
  • Work Related: I’m thankful to see the movement to protect the free and open web gain traction and momentum throughout the world.
  • Family Related: I’m thankful to have the chance to see my mom in her final days.
  • Spotify ( and the artists )
  • Ireland
  • The ability to travel
  • Noise canceling headphones
  • Comedians
  • Family and friends
  • The OpenGov family
  • The DC civic hacking community
  • Good tea
  • Hope, in a world that needs more of it
  • My family and friends
  • The OpenGov Foundation team
  • Having a warm, safe home to live in
  • My family
  • My friends
  • My partner
  • Not to be left out: my dog!
  • The Internet
  • I’m glad to have the day to call attention to my deep thankfulness for the people I’ve been surrounded by for the past years — their belief in me has made me a better person. I truly believe we can build a better world together.
  • Books. My Kindle.
  • The Keefer family is thankful for the people that were an important part of Sean’s life.
  • Food, glorious food
  • The luxury to travel and explore my interests
  • I’m grateful for music and my ability to connect with my fellow man through my knowledge and passion for creativity.
  • Learning what good tea is, thanks to Bill Hunt

Gratitude By: Leili Slutz, Seamus Kraft, Congressman Darrell Issa, Chris Birk, Bill Hunt, Dave Steer, Dan Whaley, Willow Brugh, Matthew Steinberg, Rich Hirshberg, Lanham Napier, Alberto Ibarguen, Rebecca Williams, Chris Keefer

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