Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century

Congress represents a national cross section of civic voice. It is potentially the most diverse market for ideas in government and should be reaping the benefits of America’s creativity and knowledge. 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.

Today’s Congress can’t compete on digital infrastructure or modern data methods with the executive branch, the media or the private sector. To be sure, information weaponization, antique technology and Congress’ stubborn refusal to fund itself has arrested its development of a digital infrastructure. Congress is knowledge incapacitated, physically disconnected and technologically obsolete. In this condition, it cannot fulfill its First Branch duties as laid out in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Fortunately, changing the direction of Congress is now in sight. Before the end of January 2019, (1) the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act became law, (2) the House created a Select Committee on Modernization, and (3) Congress began to restore its internal science and technology capacity.

Modernizing Congress lays out a plan to accelerate this institutional progress. It scopes out the challenge of including civic voice in the legislative and deliberative process. It then identifies trusted local information intermediaries who could act as key components of a modern knowledge commons in Congress. With three case studies, the report illustrates how members and staff are finding new ways to build connection and gather useful constituent input at the district level. The report explores an urban, rural and suburban district. It concludes that while individual members are leveraging technology to connect and use new forms of civic voice from constituents, what Congress needs most is a systemwide digital infrastructure and updated institutional standards for data collection.

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