Congress: Monolithic Mess or Solvable System of Systems?

Cover slide for the 'Five Hacks for Congress' panel at the Legislative Data and Transparency Conference.

(Poll conducted on Cloakroom)

A mere 16% of the American public currently approves of the performance of the United States Congress. And according to a real-time poll of congressional staff conducted this morning seen to the right, the situation is no better for those serving on the inside.

Only when we stop looking at the federal legislative branch as a monolithic broken institution and start viewing it as a system of systems in need of improvement, can Congress start earning back the trust and confidence of taxpayers — and of the legions of overworked, underpaid congressional staff.

Five Hacks for Congress panel.

(Photo from today’s panel)

That was the message delivered by our Executive Director Seamus Kraft at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, held today deep under the still-scaffolded Capitol Dome. Kraft led a lively conversation, titled “Five Hacks for Congress,” aimed at breaking down into solvable problems the seemingly intractable Digital Age institutional, technical and procedural challenges mounting here on Capitol Hill. Top congressional expert Kathy Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation and Ethan Chumley from the Microsoft Tech & civic Engagement team joined the panel discussion.

Goldschmidt underscored the dangerous impacts made by the ongoing explosion of both the number of constituents per member of the House — from 34,000 in 1790 to more than 710,000 in 2010 — and the amount of communications they now lob at their elected officials thanks to the rise of digital communications technology – from 2002 to 2010, congressional offices experienced an average increase in constituent correspondence of 548%. “Unsurprisingly,” Goldschmidt concluded, “Congress is having trouble turning public demand into satisfactory public policy.”

Without members of Congress waking up to this worsening reality and voting for significant budget and staff increases, the only viable solution is to do more with less. That sounds like a technology challenge becoming a ripe innovation opportunity. “We are continuing to force the men and women serving on our behalf in government to try to tackle our shared 21st century challenges without providing them the basic 21st century tools to get those wickedly hard jobs done,” Kraft said. The current situation isn’t working and so we need to overhaul these systems. If you want to learn more about technology spending in Congress, don’t miss our thorough analysis and recommendations here.

The panel laid out clear options for modernizing congressional systems, data and processes by outlining what cannot be done (unless you’re one of those 535 members):

  • We can’t diminish the role of Congress. It is the first branch.
  • We can’t scrap it and start over.
  • Raising the budget is a non-starter in the current congressional environment.
  • We can’t keep citizens from petitioning government – it’s a Constitutional right and the lifeblood of the relationship between citizens and the people’s branch.
  • We can’t keep technology from marching forward – expectations will only increase over time.
  • We can’t change the fundamentals of the legislative process.
  • We can’t ignore this problem any longer and collectively, we must become part of the solution.

If those options are off the table, what can be done? The panel next explored five cross-cutting congressional hacks, breaking down the monolith into discrete democratic systems on which one can work:

  1. Engagement – delivering informed opinions representative of a member’s constituents, managing communication workflow to reduce quantity and increase quality.
  2. Collaboration – developing public policy relies on relationships and complex workflows, but current disjointed tools and processes make it inefficient.
  3. Capacity to access, understand and act on high-quality, reliable information – improving real time participation for better questions, better amendment and better deliberation.
  4. Spending and reimbursement – overhauling the paper-based accounting system would allow better management and monitoring of limited taxpayer dollars.
  5. Trust – Without improving this nothing else will improve, the public needs to know their government is representing them well. This opportunity covers casework improvement, better transparency in office work and what’s happening in Congress.

The panel closed with a call to remember that, when it comes to modernizing the most important legislature in the history of the world, we’re only just scratching the surface. But as Kraft concluded, if there is any group of people who can create a 21st century Congress, it is the A Team assembled by the Legislative Data Transparency Conference.

What do you think? Tweet at us at @FoundOpenGov or email us at sayhello@opengovfoundation.org with your thoughts.