Jan27

“In the private sector we’re able to implement solutions, try new things, use open source [technology], whatever we wanted to do . . . Here there’s a very arcane process and it delays technology . . . it really impedes my ability as a Representative to work for the people of the 2nd Congressional District of Colorado.”

–Congressman Jared Polis

 

“Before I came to Congress I worked in the electronics industry, a place where every day we try to find . . .  [ways to make] products more convenient and easier, and access more natural to human beings. That’s something we don’t find in Congress, but it’s something I believe we can bring to Congress.”

–Congressman Darrell Issa

 

Congress can do better.

Let’s make it happen.

 

This weekend over 200 political scientists, designers, journalists, educators, civic technologists, and other experts will gather in Cambridge, Massachusetts to find ways for Congress to operate more efficiently, effectively, and collaboratively.

 

Proposed projects include rethinking the legislative ideation process; designing modern participatory committee hearings; making the legislative process and legislative text more accessible to the public; and building a database for in-office tracking of policymakers’ actions on specific issues.

 

The hackathon is one of two events; the first takes place this weekend at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the second will be in Washington, DC in mid-April. Registration for both events is free.

 

What Congressman Darrell Issa and Congressman Jared Polis have to say about Hack4Congress:

Congressman Jared Polis on Hack4Congress

 

Congressman Darrell Issa on Hack4Congress

 

Why we do what we do

The OpenGov Foundation’s Executive Director said it best on Alexis Ohanian’s Small Empires series:

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.” 

 

Join #Hack4Congress. Help us bring our democracy into the 21st Century.

 

More information on projects and registration at Hack4Congress.org.

Co-organized by Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and by The OpenGov Foundation, the event is co-sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, Represent.Us, CODE2040, POPVOX, Capitol Bells, Generation Citizen, and the Participatory Politics Foundation.

 

No Comments
SHARE Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Email Icon Youtube Icon GitHub Icon
Jan20

The Sunlight Foundation asked leaders in the open government and civic technology movements what President Obama should say in tonight’s State of the Union address to set the tone for open government policy in 2015. Here’s what our Executive Director Seamus Kraft had to say:

 

“Open government should mean better government built in full partnership with “We the People.” It should mean better service delivery and easier access for all Americans to the heart of our democracy: our public laws, public officials and a public accounting of where and how every dime of our tax dollars is spent. With a dazzling array of technologies and innovations at our fingertips, truly open government should possible in every state house, city hall and even our nation’s capitol.

“Much work remains to fulfill the heady open government promises made at the dawn of President Obama’s term. We have a long way to go to change the “Culture of Closed” that still reigns supreme. That culture change will only arrive through cooperation and collaboration, two things in dearly short supply in today’s Washington, D.C.

“I hope to hear the president tout his incipient open government accomplishments — from the General Service Administration’s crowdsourced development of a civic engagement playbook, to the creation of 18F, to the implementation of the DATA Act. But I also hope to hear a clear commitment to work with the career civil service, the Senate and the House of Representatives to ensure that, when the president rides off into the sunset, these small victories do not disappear, but endure and grow.”

 

Visit the Sunlight Foundation’s post to see contributions from other open government leaders.

No Comments
SHARE Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Email Icon Youtube Icon GitHub Icon
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…

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 9.31.35 AM

 

“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.

 

No Comments
SHARE Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Email Icon Youtube Icon GitHub Icon
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?”

No Comments
SHARE Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Email Icon Youtube Icon GitHub Icon

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

 

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 9.23.53 AM

 

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

 

 

No Comments
SHARE Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Email Icon Youtube Icon GitHub Icon
Older Posts >>