July 21, 2017 | By Austin Seaborn
Members of Congress have close connections with their districts, and information arising from local organizations, such as professional groups, academia, industry as well as constituents with relevant expertise (like retirees, veterans or students) is highly valuable to them. Today, congressional staff capacity is at a historic low, while at the same time, constituents in districts are often well equipped to address the underlying policy questions that Congress seeks to solve.
In recent months, Lorelei Kelly joined our team at the Beeck Center as a Senior Fellow, and will be the lead on this crowdsourcing project. Lorelei brings decades of expertise, having worked both on Capitol Hill as well as in the policy/think-tank space. Given my academic background and experience in both executive and legislative branches of government, I was immediately drawn to this project. I am passionate about finding innovative ways to make Congress more effective and inclusive in our 21st Century democracy.
Our research will highlight promising and effective practices to enhance public policy formulation by bolstering congressional access to constituent expertise. We envision a deliberative process utilizing new digital data methods, whereby congressional offices gather input that is both more systematic and agile in order to supplement a Member’s existing resources. We believe that networked knowledge will be a critical component for modernizing the workflow of our legislature and making American democracy more resilient. Our end goal is to bring citizens more fully into the process of self-government so that Congress receives information beyond what might be available from DC-based influence groups and narrow private interests.
In meetings we have had with House and Senate staffers, they repeatedly express both the difficulty managing their substantial area-specific work loads and their interest in finding ways to substantively engage constituents to find good nuggets of information to help them in their roles as policymakers. At the same time, constituents are demanding more transparency and dialogue from their elected representatives. In many cases, our project brings these two together. It allows Members to tap the expertise in their districts while at the same time creating an avenue for constituents to contribute their knowledge and area expertise to the legislative process. It’s a win for constituents and a win for Member of Congress and their staffs.
It is important to note that the United States lags behind other democracies in experimenting with more inclusive methods during the policymaking process. In the United Kingdom, for example, the UK Parliament has experimented with a variety of new digital tools to engage with constituents. These methods range from Twitter hashtags, which are now quite common given the rise in social media use by governments and elected officials, to a variety of web forums on a variety of platforms. Since June of 2015, they have also been doing digital debates, where questions from the general public are crowdsourced and later integrated into a parliamentary debate by the Member of Parliament leading the debate. Estonia, South Africa, Taiwan, France also…notable examples.
One promising new development we hope to explore more thoroughly is the U.S. Library of Congress’s recently announced legislative data App Challenge. This competition is distinct from the many hackathons that have been held on behalf of Congress in the past, in that this challenge seeks new methods not only to innovate, but also to integrate and legislate. In his announcement, the Library’s Chief Information Officer, Bernard A. Barton, Jr., stated, “An informed citizenry is better able to participate in our democracy, and this is a very real opportunity to contribute to a better understanding of the work being done in Washington. It may even provide insights for the people doing the work around the clock, both on the Hill, and in state and district offices. Your innovation and integration may ultimately benefit the way our elected officials legislate for our future.” We believe these sorts of new methods will play a crucial role in the future of engaging citizens in their democracies.
More blogs like this one will come as our research progresses, including once we have selected our case studies. We also hope to use these posts to document key takeaways and to highlight other promising discoveries we make on the journey.