Modernizing Congress: Tools to Build Digital Capacity, Increase Public Understanding, and Generate Trust
By Lorelei Kelly
Six years ago, as a part of the Resilient Democracy Coalition, I set out to reimagine Congressional field hearings using new technologies. The goal was to build capacity in Congress and help ordinary people understand the institution by creating a broader menu of options for members to choose from when engaging with constituents, as well as ways for the public to engage productively in between elections. Ultimately, we were striving to bring Congress to locations outside the Washington, D.C. Beltway so members could tap into the tremendous reservoir of knowledge and expertise within their home districts. Our theory was that bringing Congress into the 21st century in this way would result in increased trust between elected leaders and the communities they serve.
That initial field research expanded into the Modernizing Congress project at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and led to the baseline 2019 report, Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century. This report, in turn, informed a pop-up class called “Democracy Under Construction” taught here at Georgetown.
In November 2019, I co-authored an op-ed in The Hill detailing the need for remote capacity as part of a continuity plan in case of a catastrophe (or a pandemic which we presciently flagged at the time). At that point, the committee had convened nearly two years of hearings, yielding dozens of recommendations that Congress began implementing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, accelerated the urgency for a technologically competent and fully connected first branch of government. During those fraught months, I testified three times in support of building technology capacity, not only to keep Congress functioning but for continuity of government. Through the Beeck Center, I also provided demonstrations and support (like this mock hearing + briefing book) to help members of the House and Senate carry out their lawmaking duties.
Civic engagement is a longstanding duty for all government leaders, including and especially members of Congress. Technology and data can inspire new methods to strengthen democracy. When viewed as governing resources, technology and data allow for much broader and deeper participation in both the process and the content of lawmaking.
With the decision to implement specific modernization recommendations, Congress has taken an unprecedented step to change itself. The next challenge is broader: our nation must generate new, updated norms and ways of practicing democracy. New civic engagement methods provide a systematic way to channel the desire to participate and benefit from results. To be successful, modernization must go hand-in-hand with the development of new practices outside of D.C. and Capitol Hill, especially in district offices. Civic engagement will remain the cornerstone of this challenge, both online and off.
Thankfully, the Modernization Committee is building capacity, increasing understanding, and generating trust. The committee’s first hearing featured member-colleagues as witnesses. The bipartisan leadership convened a “Member Day Hearing” as a shared space at the start of each session of Congress. They also led listening sessions with staff. The return of member-directed “earmarks” as a community vetted grants program is a good news example. The new Congressional Digital Service in the House will continue socializing and introducing new technologies after the Modernization Committee winds down at the end of 2022.
Holding hearings on remote platforms like Zoom makes every corner of the country a potential bench of witnesses. All 541 member offices in Congress are now competent virtual content moderators — a skillset we could only dream about three years ago. Steps like these build capacity for broader participation in oversight, monitoring, and evaluation. These are good news stories and hopeful pathways toward restoring legitimacy.
The Beeck Center’s Modernizing Congress project will draw to a close this summer. It is fitting that my last testimony as the project lead comprises a curriculum for the next steps in civic engagement with Congress.
On May 11, 2022, the Modernization Committee held a roundtable discussion on increasing civic engagement with Congress. I was invited to this member-led discussion and given the opportunity to present our “how-to” guides and offer suggestions for increasing digital capacity and public understanding which are included below.
Recommendations for Increasing Civic Engagement with Congress
Engage your constituents with a vision for a modern democratic republic.
Shape→Structure→Share: A Roadmap to Digital Public Infrastructure in U.S. Democracy
This roadmap presents a high-level view of how a modern democracy can evolve. It specifically describes communication responsibilities in the unique U.S. model of a democratic republic.
Provide collaborative editing opportunities in the lawmaking process.
How-to Guide: A Community Shapes Environmental Justice Legislation
The House Natural Resources Committee demonstrated an unprecedented level of collaboration while creating the Environmental Justice for All Act — a lawmaking process that included pollution-impacted communities across the U.S. If committees follow their lead and jump-start institutional innovation, they will attract opportunities to build first branch capacity for evidence-based decision making, improved oversight, evaluation, and monitoring.
Broaden participation and gain valuable perspective with a Stakeholders, Individuals, Data, and Evidence (SIDE) Event.
How-to Guide: Civic Voice During COVID 19: A SIDE Event Playbook for Members of Congress and their Communities
The SIDE model builds on constituent-centered activities like task forces, town halls, roundtables, or listening sessions. It modernizes engagement by offering a standard, tagged template for public input or public witness testimony curated by the member.
Create a Civic App Store in Congress. Allow district staff to collaborate with local civic technologists to create workflow tools.
How-to Guide: A Community Builds an App with Congress
Congressional modernization priorities provide a prompt for members to build relationships with civic technologists in states and districts. As our member-piloted model demonstrates, working together with local talent will not only build bridges and create civic momentum, it will lay the groundwork for a pipeline of public interest technology applications and products adapted for Congress’ workflow.
Create a Civic Voice Archive with a Right-to-Petition Capacity.
This archive could be modeled on the House Clerk’s committee document repository at docs.house.gov. Along with a library of machine-readable civic voice input, it should include capacity for a reimagined version of Congress’ First Amendment grievance processing functions, also known as the “Right to Petition.”
Lorelei Kelly is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University where she leads the project on Modernizing Congress. You can find her on Twitter.