Articles From August 2010
Can you hear me now? at IBM Center for The Business of Government
It may be 2010, but when it comes to how constituents contact their members of congress it's like we're still using the Pony Express. As Marci explained in our first POPVOX post , the (electronic) letter is still the medium that works best for constituents and for members of congress, as bad as the cacophonous situation is today.
There is a lot of room for innovation. But us technologists had to make a number of mistakes first. Last summer I ran an experiment over at GovTrack to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress . The letter, which happened to be opposing H.R. 45 , a gun control bill, was collaboratively drafted by 451 participants using MixedInk.com . It was a little like 451 people working on a wiki to write a single letter. (And it worked well, considering.)
I delivered the letter personally to the offices of eight congressmen and learned a few things. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories to the letter in their district. (We had some 3,000 people sign the letter after it was drafted.)
Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group-written letter as an innovative form of communication. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? Staff reactions were pretty much the same: Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition with 3,000 signers that is how they saw it. There was no added value of going through the hoops of drafting a letter collaboratively.
My experiment failed because I wasn't attuned to the needs of congressional staff. Communication is a two-way street, after all. Constituents have certain needs when communicating with their representatives, and staff for members of congress have different needs. What works for one may not work for the other. Letter-writing is good for constituents but it's too good. Constituents write so many letters that congressional staff can only barely claim to process them. It's just a bad situation.
The POPVOX team thinks it's hit a sweet spot with the development of our new tool. We're by no means intending to replace the letter, electronic or otherwise. Our tool is solely electronic and we recognize that not all communities are equally active online, and what's best for one community may not be best for all. But we think there are times when a communication with Congress could be most effective with something other than a direct letter, and that's where we're hard at work.
If I end here, I'm sorry for being a bit of a tease about what we're actually building. But I'll tell you the most important part: the what is less important than the how . On the surface our idea is not new. It's our team, our experience inside Congress, with Gov2.0, and advocacy and our connections that allows us to develop a deeply thought-through product that will surely be significant.
We're going to be blogging throughout our process of development and of course after launch, and I hope to write about our approach to handling constituent communication "data", plans for analysis, our commitment to open access, and other technological sides of the project.
Constituent communications are flooding and overwhelming Congressional offices. The resulting logjam is not good for the public trying to express an opinion and causes diminished returns on the investment advocacy organizations make to get their message through. The POPVOX team is hard at work on a tool that will help deliver the public’s message to Congress in a way that Congress can best receive it and act upon it.
The idea for POPVOX began when, as a Congressional staffer, I was frustrated with the unmanageable amount of input coming into legislative offices. In my experience, the increasing emails, tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. did not help the public’s message get through. On the contrary, the ever-louder noise decreases the effectiveness of traditional advocacy tools. I’m not saying that online petitions are a sham , just that if their purpose is to get a message to Congress, they are increasingly ineffective.
I’m also not saying that Congress ignores messages from constituents. In fact, exactly the opposite. As I noted in a piece for GovTrackInsider.com , constituent input is one of the most important factors in a legislator’s consideration of new bills and issues. New legislative initiatives sometimes originate with a constituent letter. That doesn’t mean your Representative or Senator is taking a poll on every decision to be made. You elected them to make good policy by educating themselves on the pros and cons of each issue, balancing competing priorities, and running decisions though their personal filter of experience and values.
I am saying that the cacophony of incoming messages has become too loud for legislators to hear what constituents are saying. The result is an absolute, unrelenting, aggressive information overload . Clay Shirky has suggested, “Any time you hear the term ‘information overload,’ ask: ’which filter is broken?’" The broken filter is the Lucy-and-Ethel-in-the-chocolate-factory state of affairs for the staff and interns of the 541 legislative offices on Capitol Hill.
We have all had times in our lives when we think, there ought to be a better way . Usually, within a few years, someone invents the technology to facilitate that better way. With Congress, it’s a little more complicated. Until now, those outside Congress who understood the technology and potential of Web 2.0 just didn’t get the cultural and institutional limitations of the legislative branch. As Wayne Moses Burke of the Open Forum Foundation recently wrote , “technology is NOT the hard part. It’s the legacy systems.”
Those legacy systems under the Capitol dome can sometimes squash all but the bravest attempts at innovation. And if a tech solution to staff information needs and constituent communication overload comes from the Hill, it is usually partisan, as with the House Democrats’ DemCom intranet or the House Republican’s AmericaSpeakingOut . That’s not criticism, it’s just the way Congress works. That was not the “better way” I was looking for.
Congress is not by nature a hospitable environment for third party tools, as evidenced by the Franking Committee rule change required to free up Congressional use of Facebook and YouTube or to “ Let Our Congress Tweet .” That kind of uphill battle keeps the tech innovators with bigger fish to fry from developing a Congress-focused solution. Instead, social media evangelists implore Congress to adopt the social media tools available today. . . and Congress has, to a certain extent. Sen. John McCain is currently being celebrated as the Senator with the highest “ Digital IQ ,” which the GW and NYU researchers called "the definitive benchmark for online competence.” Leaving others to comment on that (h/t @wmburke ), I just think that perhaps we are setting the bar a little low for use of technology for messages going in and coming out of Congress.
One example I knew of someone who had gotten it right with technology and created a tool that was useful to Congress, staffers, media, organizations and members of the public, was Josh Tauberer, the creator of GovTrack.us . The GovTrack open API for data on bills pending before Congress is now so prevalent it powers almost every site that contains bill information. So I called Josh, we talked about the still fuzzy concept, and began working with others you will hear from on this blog to imagine a workable web-based solution.
POPVOX is the first tool that starts by applying Web 2.0 technology to answer some of the information needs of Congress. The great thing about starting with Congress is that POPVOX then answers the needs of the organizations and advocates and members of the public that are trying to get Congress’ attention. I will credit Clay Shirky again with summing it up much better than I ever have. He imagined that the POPVOX concept could "move us from the Town Square, where the one who gets heard is the one who yells the loudest, to the Marketplace of Ideas.”
We will tell you more about this Marketplace of Ideas in later posts. In the meantime, if this sounds interesting to you, please leave us your email (look in the sidebar on the right), let us know if you would like to help us beta test, and spread the word.
All the best,
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at email@example.com.)
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