Congress

For GovHub, all politics is personal

GovHub

Source: GovHub

When no one in Nick Gaines’ UC Berkeley freshman political science class could answer the question “Who is your state senator?,” he tuned in, dropped out and started GovHub with co-founder Adam Becker. Here, Becker shares more about their pursuit of the American dream and how they want to help citizens better engage with their elected officials.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

GovHub provides a personalized platform for citizens to learn about and interact with their officials in each level of government.

What problems does GovHub solve?

For government officials:

  • Lack of name recognition
  • Antiquated, costly public opinion polls
  • Inefficient methods for communicating with their constituents

For citizens:

  • Hard to actually find who represents you in each level of government (to find out who my city councilperson is, I have to click through about ten pages on my city’s website, including a 2mb PDF file)
  • Once you know who represents you, no good way to see what they’re doing in office
  • Communication with representatives often feels futile and is hard to get a personalized response from

What are its key features?

  • Enter your address and see the officials that represent you at each level of government.
  • See their profiles, voting records, social media updates.
  • Interact with them on our discussion board, which uses crowdsourced moderation to determine the issues that are most important to an official’s constituents. (We have Kriss Worthington from the Berkeley City Council doing our first Q+A on April 12th.)

…and some really neat things planned for the future.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

GovHub will always be free for its users. In the future we plan to charge government officials (and candidates) for the different services that can connect them to their constituents.

How can those interested connect with you?

Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongress meetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

How developers can win Congress

House of RepresentativesIn a recent post from Coder-in-Chief Clay Johnson, Clay outlines several reasons why developers should run for Congress. Among them:

  • They’re under-represented as a profession.
  • Government’s problems are becoming increasingly technical.
  • Great developers are systems fixers and systems hackers.
  • Developers are great digital communicators.

Despite the argument we should keep developers out of politics, Microsoft’s Howard Dierking’s Engineering Good Government suggests the Constitutional framers were in fact the nation’s first patriot programmers:

Modern software design deals with the complexities of creating systems composed of innumerable components that must be stable, reliable, efficient, and adaptable over time. A language has emerged over the past several years to capture and describe both practices to follow and practices to avoid when designing software. These are known as patterns and antipatterns. This chapter will explore known software design patterns and antipatterns in context of the U.S. Constitution and will hopefully encourage further application of software design principles as a metaphor for describing and modeling the complex dynamics of government in the future.

If the developer community is serious about building a more concerted effort around changing the way Washington works, here are some recommendations:

Find the founders

It’s not enough to say ‘if you’re a developer ‘” consider a run!’ Developers with civic passion need to step up and show it can be done. The movement needs real faces, real leaders that will walk the walk. Tech leaders already at the intersection of government and technology like Clay Johnson (yes you, Clay), Jim Gilliam or tech publisher Tim O’Reilly, can show firsthand you can change government from the inside.

Build a coalition

Create a sense of unity. A well-labeled coalition would allow candidates to better affiliate themselves with a movement and simplify their message. It doesn’t have to be a new iParty, just something that unifies the platform, much the way the Blue Dog Democrats have done. Ultimately, when these candidates are elected, they could build their own official caucus with a more formal, long-standing impact.

Build an ‘Operating System for America’ platform

Much like Newt Gingrich did with ‘Contract for America,’ developers need to present their case in a concise manner. Create specific objectives as to how the work on Congress needs to change and tie in the spirit of innovation, technology so that it will resonate with citizens. More importantly, the objectives need to be defined outside of standard political issues.

Establish a support network

Most professions have a supporting political organization that provides resources, networking and fundraising opportunities for members running for office. A ‘Coders for America’ organization doesn’t have to be a formal 501c organization, but there does need to be a foundational support network that can help developers better understand the campaign process and better access resources.

Make geek chic

We’re all too familiar with the stereotype that developers are introverts or think they’re smarter than everyone else. The iParty needs to be more iPhone, less Android, so to speak. Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs has perfected the art of making geek chic. Tech-centric political candidates would do well to take a page from his book (or iPad).

As the dynamics of government and politics increasingly shift to the Web, and citizens adopt tools and technology that make it easier to access elected officials, developers are well-suited to best understand how to tap into this opportunity.

The next step is to do something about it.

Gov 2.0 guide to the Public Online Information Act (POIA)

The Public Online Information Act (POIA) of 2010, H.R.4858, was introduced on March 13 by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to put public information online in user-friendly formats in a timely fashion. The bill applies to Executive Branch agencies and is essentially a proactive approach to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). Sunlight Foundation has launched Public=Online, a grassroots campaign to gain support for the legislation.

Overview:

To establish an advisory committee to issue nonbinding government-wide guidelines on making public information available on the Internet, to require publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet, to express the sense of Congress that publicly available information held by the legislative and judicial branches should be available on the Internet, and for other purposes.

Video intro to POIA:

Press conference with Rep. Israel, Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum Founder Andrew Rasiej announcing the bill:

Israel and Miller discuss POIA on MSNBC:

More POIA

Does Congress care about open government?

I was honored this week to be invited to testify before the Senate Government Affairs Sub Committee hearing entitled, “Removing the Shroud of Secrecy: Making Government More Transparent and Accountable“. A first panel of government leaders including Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and US Archivist David Ferriero were invited to discuss progress on Open Government. A second panel of industry and advocacy experts including representatives from the Sunlight Foundation, the National Security Archive and Meritalk Online (and Adobe) were also invited, although our testimony was cut short by procedural maneuvers relevant to the health care debate occurring on the Senate Floor. For the two and half hours we were there, Senators Carper and Coburn participated fully. The hearing may be rescheduled to complete the witness testimony, but in the interim, two things were very clear to me: we have come a long way in recent years but the Open Government movement is still missing critical agents of change in government.

My how things have changed

I worked in the Senate from 1995-99 and got my first real introduction to the intersection of technology and government during the Microsoft anti-trust oversight hearing in March, 1998. That hearing was a major Washington spectacle including the CEOs of the major tech titans of the time. And my distinct memory was the anxiety that Senators and staff had about publicly discussing technology – which most Senators at the time didn’t use or particularly understand. The hearing itself questioned whether Microsoft violated anti-trust law by bundling its IE browser on the Windows desktop. And I remember explaining to my 96 year-old boss that the words ‘Browser’ and ‘Bundling’ were actually words despite the fact that his copy of Webster’s failed to corroborate my claim. And that the word ‘Desktop’ was actually a homonym and not a physical part of furniture. I have no doubt that the Senate staffers preparing for this week’s hearing had very different discussions with their Senators who were clearly knowledgeable and passionate on the promise that technology brings to government. This may seem like an obvious observation – of course this value is clear 12 years later. But while measuring the distance of how far we have come is positive and, perhaps, humorous, the distance we have to go is more daunting. Which leads to my second observation that we need to get Congress more involved in Open Government.

Vision meets the Law

The most interesting and frictional piece of the hearing came from Senator Coburn who wanted to know when Vivek and Aneesh planned to comply with the Federal Funding and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFTA) authored by Coburn and then-Senator Obama. Coburn applauded the Administration’s open government efforts, but questioned why so many initiatives had been undertaken by executive order when the one transparency law that was a fully codified law on the books had been ignored. He claimed we would be much further along if Vivek and Aneesh put their efforts towards fedspending.gov than towards the OGD and evangelism and “everything else.” He was referring specifically to OMB’s responsibility to publish a report to Congress on Federal sub-award and sub-contract spending. But generally he was referring to the very basic constitutional principal that the law of the land is established by Congress, not the Executive branch. And if we want to progress through openness and technology, we should focus on the Law because agencies and citizens have to follow it. It’s a remarkably simple commentary but one that doesn’t seem to have much energy in the Open Government movement. (Although I would love to know if I’m missing something). Most of the efforts have been about vision and possibility (marketing) or about data propagation (developer enablement). But I have not seen much in the way of true institutional incentive change – funding, organizational restructuring, program creation and requirements and economic incentives – the things that really do mean ‘change.’ Bills that become laws. Take a look at the Healthcare debate and ask yourself ‘when does change occur?’ It’s when Congress passes legislation. Now you may counter my comment with my own post – Sen. Coburn says himself the one transparency law – FFTA – is not enacting change. But he furthered that sentiment by inviting Vivek back every month to discuss the issue until he gets a suitable answer. A polite reminder of the inherent checks and balances in our system required to make change happen.

Congress is the most powerful branch of government in my opinion – but at least equally as powerful as the Executive branch- yet there is not the same level of energy coming from Capitol Hill equivalent to what is coming from the Administration. Which will make it hard for Open Government to progress at the rate we’d like to see it progress. I think this is something that needs to change, and I’m interested in your thoughts to who on Capitol Hill might feel that way as well.

You can read a transcript of my testimony here (pdf).

Video thoughts:

Gov 2.0 Radio: Talking Gov 2.0 With TweetCongress

Listen

[audio:gov20radio090329.mp3]

Episode

Talking Gov 2.0 With TweetCongress: GovLoop founder Steve Ressler and Steve Lunceford of GovTwit and BearingPoint along with host Adriel Hampton will be chatting it up with the folks behind TweetCongress, Chris McCroskey, Wynn Netherland. More Gov 2.0 Radio »