REPORT: How technology can help create a better functioning Congress

  • A new report from Lincoln Network offers a guide for tech vendors doing business with Congress and suggests reforms for creating a better functioning Congress.
  • Even though the push for IT modernization in Congress generally has bipartisan support, implementing reforms requires playing the long game due to institutional inertia and other factors.
  • Two areas in particular need of modernization and transparency are Congress’ constituent communications system and cybersecurity systems.

You won’t find it being hotly debate on cable news, but the information technology systems Congress choose to adopt — and how soon it modernizes its old systems — has serious ramifications for its ability as an institution to serve the American people.

This is one of the driving concerns behind a report published earlier this month by Lincoln Network, a nonprofit that brings together leaders from technology and government to converse, collaborate, and effect change. In addition to offering “a guide for vendors, civic hackers and public interest technologists on building tech for Congress,” the report aims to “identify opportunities for reform that will help create a better functioning Congress that can leverage modern tools to serve the needs of the American people.”

At stake is Congress’ productivity. It’s hard to calculate how much is lost due to outdated and inefficient IT systems because each member’s office is run a little differently, but in the view of many experts and advocates, there’s no question that these systems fail to deliver value to taxpayers at the level they should.

As House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers put it: “What we’re seeing is a 19th century institution often using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems. We need to change that.”

Playing the long game

Zach Graves, head of policy at Lincoln Network, told Grassroots Pulse that the push for IT modernization in Congress requires playing the long game. Aside from the House possibly moving to take advantage of more open source resources, he expects that most of the reforms proposed by his report and other organizations advocating for the issue are still a few years off at best.

The wait isn’t due to any controversial ideas. Organizations across the political spectrum (and apart from the political spectrum), including the Congressional Management Foundation, OpenGov Foundation, Demand Progress, Congressional Institute, R Street Institute, and Brookings Institution, are working to draw awareness to the issue. Similarly, lawmakers ranging from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) the new chair of the House Administration Committee, have a strong track record of supporting IT modernization, Graves said.

“These things are mostly noncontroversial, mostly bipartisan. It’s just that people tend to pay attention to their near-term interests, and not these institutional reform questions,” he said. “Usually IT infrastructure’s not a top priority.”

Indeed, even though Congress historically has proven quite capable of adapting and integrating new technologies, factors like institutional inertia, the urgency of the 24/7 news cycle, and cost-cutting measures over the past several decades have left a lot of room for basic IT infrastructure improvements.

There’s also the age factor, which many pundits were quick to point out after congressional hearings with tech executives last year exposed certain lawmakers’ ignorance about how the Internet works. Until this year, when the incoming class of freshmen members of Congress brought the average age down by a decade, lawmakers in Congress had been getting progressively older, on average, for decades.

“In some ways it’s overplayed and in some ways it’s underplayed,” Graves said of the concerns over age. Younger members indeed tend to be much better at using technology in their own offices, but he cautions there are exceptions to every rule. Some older members use tech really well and vice versa. “But I think it’s a data point that’s worth something,” he added.

Priority areas

In Graves’ view, one of the greatest needs for modernization is with the constituent communications system, a mainstay of democratic communication. In recent years congressional offices have been shifting more resources to handle constituent communications, which have ballooned with the advances of digital technology and a greater ratio of constituents to representatives due to population growth.

The total resources allocated to each office, however, haven’t been increasing. As a result congressional staff are routinely overwhelmed with advocacy groups bombarding them, and the quality of constituent engagement management systems (CRMs) isn’t making the task any easier or more efficient.

“I think the experience on both sides, being a constituent or being a staffer interfacing with that, has been universally lacking. So making that technology work really well is going to go a long way to improving the foundational function of how our Democracy is supposed to work,” Graves said. “It’s really important to get that right.”

For a more detailed look at the problems with CRMs — and what can be done to make them better — the OpenGov Foundation has created an in-depth report about the issue.

Another area in need of the latest technology is cybersecurity, Graves said. Unsurprisingly, Congress is a big target for cyberattacks due to the vast quantities of potentially sensitive information that pass through its halls.

“There’s not a lot of transparency with how that’s handled,” he said. “We don’t really know that much about what it’s doing or how serious the vulnerabilities are.”

For more suggested reforms, see the Lincoln Network report’s Conclusion section.

Image Credit: “Network” by Jordan Harrison on Unsplash

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