Modernizing Congress

Start Date: 2018

Portfolio: Data + Digital

Stage: Exploratory

Summary + Problem Statement

Here at the Beeck Center, we envision a 21st century where Americans leverage technology and data to renew democracy. To that end, the Beeck Center has been conducting research on the potential for crowdsourcing expertise from communities to inform what happens in Congress. Our initial research agenda includes developing case studies to understand what is already happening in Congress, piloting a new app to see if we can build trust between members of Congress, and testing how technology can garner effective constituent participation in the policy process.

Congress represents a national cross section of our nation’s civic voice. It is potentially the most diverse market for ideas for government and should be leveraging America’s creativity and knowledge in the policy development and policy making processes to benefit us all. During our transition into the 21st century, this civic information asset — from lived experience to structured data — should fuel the digital infrastructure of a modern representative system. Yet Congress has thus far failed to tap this resource on behalf of its legislative and deliberative functions.

Here at the Beeck Center, we envision a modern governing system where Americans leverage technology and data to renew democracy. How shall we build new feedback methods between institutions and people? A healthy democracy requires more from its citizens than voting, it requires participation in governance, active trust building and a widely held belief in the system’s legitimacy.

To that end, the Beeck Center has been exploring modernization in the legislative branch. Our recent field research resulted in a report: Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century. This report includes three district case studies: urban, rural and suburban. It identifies trusted information intermediaries that can provide opportunities, venues and methods for civic voice in the policymaking process of Congress. Modernizing Congress also features the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It proposes that a modern digital infrastructure will create a more informed, responsive and effective democracy.

Project Elements

Solution/Idea

The coming months will continue to reveal exciting opportunities in Congress.  Individual members, as well as committees, are beginning to experiment with data and technology. This will accelerate as Congress begins to integrate the data provided by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. Starting in the fall of 2019, the Beeck Center began working with the Democracy Fund  to research and document pathways to increase civic voice while Congress evolves and modernizes. Our research capacity will remain agile so we can respond quickly as opportunities to assess tech and data methods emerge.  This forthcoming work builds on existing experimental projects, including our Elevator App, created with our technical partner PopVox, for members to share collegial knowledge. This research includes active projects in member districts including a Deliberative Field Hearing pilot in New Hampshire and a Massachusetts project to build a web app in partnership with Code for Boston and the office of Rep. Seth Moulton to help retirees navigate a complex Social Security benefits process.



Implications

Congress’ inability to use data and expertise in public policymaking affects public trust in democratic institutions as Americans see poor legislation or no legislation at all. In order to become a responsive and effective governing body, Congress must build a data infrastructure for modern representative purposes. A significant part of this challenge will be creating data standards and input mechanisms for diverse expertise including civic voice within the lawmaking workflow. Indeed, Congress has to start systematically using government and authentic expert-generated data for legislating so that it does not rely on information provided by paid stakeholders, narrow outside interests or social media “mob feedback.”  Ultimately, in order to fulfill its First Branch duties, Congress must leverage data to strengthen its own independence.

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People on this project

Lorelei Kelly

Fellow, Data + Digital
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Cori Zarek

Director of Data + Digital
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Vandhana Ravi

Program Associate, Data + Digital
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