Modernizing Congress: Congress limps along with a technological handicap

Modernizing Congress - Seamus Kraft, founder and executive director of Opengov Foundation

In a world where mobile phone communication and internet access are ubiquitous, one wonders why it’s so hard to get information from Capitol Hill.  If you’ve ever tried to write your member of Congress and not heard back — how does that make you feel about your government?

While technology is embraced nearly everywhere from corporate America to the constantly-connected teens at the mall, Congress is still a paper-based institution.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said it best :  “We are a 19th Century institution often using 20th Century technology to respond to 21st Century problems.”

In a series of reports on the challenges of moving our representative government into the modern world, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin conducted  interviews with those working to expose Congress’ technological handicaps and promote ways to make government more open, accessible and efficient.

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“Lost in the partisan fighting on Capitol Hill, lost in the efforts to solve some of our nation’s greatest challenges is how important this institution is,” said Seamus Kraft, founder and Executive Director of the Opengov Foundation, an organization that aims to help government embrace the possibilities of a modern democracy. “Technology has become the critical infrastructure of our daily lives, of our social lives, and our educational lives — but it hasn’t come to government yet. It’s not anybody’s fault.  This has been a problem that’s been growing for two decades.”

Kraft is a former congressional staffer who spent four years working on the House Oversight  Committee.  Like many, he arrived on Capitol Hill to work on issues.

“I didn’t come to Washington to get paper cuts and have limited options on how I was going to serve my constituents,” he said. “I want to have the best darn collaboration tools. I want it to have the best information access to solve complex challenges. (Congress) doesn’t have that right now and what that does to people who work there is unimaginably difficult.”

Kraft wrote about those difficulties in an article last year after surveying other congressional staffers about their concerns.

“You come with energy and a spirit of public service and you’re thrown into an institution that bears more resemblance to the 20th Century when we had phones, rather than the internet age.  That’s a massive problem and until we fix that, I don’t think we have the ability to expect better outcomes from the institution.”

While Kraft is optimistic, he doesn’t expect technology to be a panacea or for change to come overnight.

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“Absolutely not, but it is going to create the capacity and the space to come together and solve some real big things,” he said.

He draws that belief from changes he saw in the White House during a crisis faced by the last administration.

“If you take a look at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, they had a real wake-up call with HealthCare.gov, and former President Obama was really able to focus on the critical infrastructure of the Executive Branch,” Kraft said.

As for those with whom he’s worked, Kraft appears frustrated by the lack of commitment. And he’s critical of half-hearted efforts.

“While the Congress does have access to the internet, it’s not working for them. It’s stopping them,” he said. “The Congressional Management Foundation has done  some excellent research showing over the past few years, constituent communications through email has increased almost 600 percent. Yet on the House side, they’ve been cutting their budgets by 20 percent in real dollars over the last four or five years.”

Solutions, Kraft said, are all around us.

“I think the first thing they need to do is take stock in what the institution is supposed to be doing. If we really want a Congress that works, we need to invest in it,” he said.

To that end, Kraft help found the  OpenGov Foundation a few years ago to take a stand against a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act — which he and his supporters felt would have internet-harming effects.

“We stayed up for three days and invested about $10,000 belonging to my co-founder  Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to build a piece of software called Madison. It simply opened up the hearing process to public comment via the internet that radically enhanced our ability to legislate. We were able to get 160,000 in the room (digitally speaking) for a hearing! There was so much knowledge, so much energy, so much fact-based initiative brought to bear on building a better policy outcome with $10,000 worth of technology.”

Pleading for some Congressional enlightenment and financial commitment, Kraft does the math.

“If you have a $4 billion Legislative Branch budget, you can find one-tenth of one-percent ($ 4 million) to really double-down and invest in the institution’s infrastructure,” he said.

Kraft also points to the Bulk Legislative Data Task Force and how its commitment has begun to improve the way Congress works.  Started under former House Speaker John Boehner, and encouraged by leaders of both parties, Kraft said Congress has begun modernizing the way it writes legislation by moving from a paper-based system to an open-data modern one.

“It can be done — it’s just a question of attention and political will,” he said.

Kraft also said members have to pay attention to what their staff is telling them.

“One of the coolest people I’ve met on the Hill over the past couple of years is the head of a professional managers association with staff assistants and administrative assistants on the Hill. The first time I sat down with her she gave me a punch list of about a dozen things, from modern compliant software to better scheduling tools that overnight would transform the citizen experience when they contact or visit Congress. But it would also transform the lives of those who work there every day.”

Why hasn’t this kind of thinking brought Congress into the technological present?  Kraft said it must be a stem to stern solution. The question is: “Where do you start?”

Until something is done, until Congress makes the commitment to take the technological leap, Kraft said Congress is not serving the American people.

“The tragedy is we’re leaving not just an individual’s First Amendment Right to petition their government on the floor, we’re leaving virtually limitless knowledge that can be brought to bear on building better policy options in Congress.”

This is part one of a three part special report on Modernizing Congress. Read the rest of the report here.