Building the Democracy Stack
By Lorelei Kelly, Senior Fellow
22 March 2018
How do we strengthen trust in our democracy? Here at the Beeck Center, we believe we can make significant progress on trust-building by helping Congress engage citizens differently. Renewing our democratic institutions is imperative in the digital 21st century. Fortunately, metaphors exist that will help us imagine where we need to go.
A technical stack consists of layers of components that build a system. Modern democracy requires its own components. What will our democracy stack look like? We’re focussed on Congress because it is the most democratic of our federal governing institutions. It is also the most powerful national legislature in the world. Congress is a complex and indirect representative system. It is not a direct democracy, although it should be more responsive. It is already decentralized. As a political institution, it prioritize human relationships over technology. This quality is why it must be the centerpiece for building trust in our democracy. That’s also why our first research theme is how Members of Congress are crowdsourcing expert capacity with constituents. If the challenge is trust building, the goal is to build a democracy stack that optimizes relationships based on shared values. Sharing knowledge like technical expertise and finding new ways for thoughtful deliberation are good places to begin.
“Our social media is the digital equivalent of protesters shouting at buildings on the Mall,” said a House staffer when I asked how his office was using popular online platforms to connect with citizens.
Congress was set up to be the institutional mediator between citizens and the centralized federal government. It is Article One in the US Constitution because our Founders believed so strongly in this democratic function. Today, American lawmaking should offer opportunities to include more voices. Increasing participation using technology and data is already happening in other democratic countries. But our American legislature has been too under-capacity to fully take advantage of these trends. From antique marble buildings that inhibit WIFI to it’s 1990’s technology attitude, Congress is a unique modernization challenge. And, while we seek to update the institution, we must also find ways to integrate new ideas with its centuries old workflow and procedural rules. We will concentrate on two of Congress’ most important functions in this project–knowledge sharing and informed deliberation. Both of these functions have decayed because they cannot compete in a volatile, 24 second news cycle that is dominated by loud campaign tactics and purchased access. Despite emotions running high, we must find ways to re-balance power among all three branches of the US Government. Presidential power consolidation–ongoing for decades–is a dangerous trend for any democracy.
“Stop sending me so much information. I know how to read the footnotes. I know how to use a search engine. What I don’t have is context for my district, expert judgment and the incentive to use facts.” – Long-serving Chief of Staff in Congress
Building our democracy stack means we need to create competitive political constituencies around knowledge sharing and deliberation. We must re-align the incentives of our elected leaders away from campaigning and back to democratic governing. How do we expand the notion of democracy outside of elections? How do we re-invent convening so public events are safe and productive for members and citizens alike? How do we give Members opportunities to explain tradeoffs and complex policy issues? How might regular citizens with special expertise organize themselves to be reliable policy resources? Vitally, how to we make sure that civic data is used ethically and protected for social good purposes? The formal rules in Congress have slowly evolved to allow more transparency. The technical systems are incrementally improving. We can now begin to pilot new democratic methods.
We can find hope for change by looking at recent history. Our democratic legislature was not always so bedraggled. Until 1995, the US Congress maintained a deep and extensive network of shared expertise. It operated one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies. Before 1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared between the two political parties. Public hearings—a key bridge to citizen understanding—were more frequent. Whilst this former mutually-shared system stands in stark contrast to the one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can renew our democracy and bolster our shared future by harnessing the digital tools now at hand.
Together with constituents, individual Members of Congress will be a vital component of a trust-building democracy stack. Let’s start with the basics. What are the roles of a Member of Congress? This list was compiled in 2004 by Congressman Lee Hamilton (IN ret.)
- National legislator—working to pass the laws of our nation and determine spending levels for thousands of federal programs;
- Local representative serving the priorities, interests, and economic needs of the constituents;
- Constituent advocate for individuals groups, industries, and communities in the district;
- Committee member, which requires developing specific expertise;
- Investigator charged with oversight of the federal government;
- Educator who can translate the work of Congress for constituents as well as the media;
- Student of his or her constituents;
- Local dignitary performing ceremonial functions at home and serving as ambassador from the nation’s capital;
- Fundraiser in order to run for re-election;
- Staff manager for anywhere between seventeen and eighty staffers in DC and at home;
- Party leader in the party’s caucus; and, lastly;
- Consensus builder both within and between parties
Each of these member responsibilities remains vital in today’s Congress, yet Members lack both the capacity and often the incentives to carry them out. And, trust between American citizens and their democratic institutions is rapidly diminishing, so the stack is falling apart.
We believe that there is a great deal of work already being done around the USA that contributes to a modern trust-building democracy stack. Civic innovation and information sharing happens in local communities every day. This project seeks to reveal and celebrate this important work. More, we hope to tap into these local networks in order to create modern capacity for a Member’s representative responsibilities. .
This blog post serves as an introduction to my research, supported by Democracy Fund. Assisted by my colleagues Austin Seaborn and Itay Weiss, I work directly with Members of Congress in their home districts, outside of Washington, DC.
Although I do not know what our ultimate democracy stack will be, I intend to make elements of a possible solution available on this blog over the coming months. I will also post an interactive sister channel on Medium, so please follow me there. Topics will include case studies from Congress, how technology and data can improve efficiency and inclusion, the role of local journalism, maker spaces, innovation hubs, universities, state and local government. I’ll also look at new convening methods and examples from other contemporary democracies.
Modern data and technology tools can bolster our democracy with new possibilities. Finding ways to be more inclusive while respecting the limits of an old and cautious institution is not easy, however. We must start experimenting, because for this idea to succeed, we’ll need a cross-section of bright spots from around the USA. Are you building part of a modern democracy stack in your community? Send me your ideas!
Note: This text has been updated. Please contact the author for the original.