Articles By josh
In a blog post about advocacy tactics for individuals, Clay Johnson wrote that POPVOX is not tactical enough. I wanted to take a quick moment to respond in particular to:
"Organizations like PopVox and Votizen . . . don't . . . go far enough for two reasons. The first is tactical: people are already communicating with members of Congress using the tools they want to communicate with: Facebook, Twitter, the Email, and the Telephone. . . . If Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ allowed for people to associate their various legislative districts to their profile, and defaulted to making that public, that'd go a long way."
We've long been working on how to use existing social media tools better in advocacy, and if we haven't gone far enough then it's because farther is not yet practical. We have already begun to offer Congressional staff the ability to see more information about the individuals posting on their official Facebook Pages, and we have talked with a number of staffers about it, but Congressional offices so far are just not particularly interested in using their social media accounts in new ways. Until they get their traditional constituent correspondence system into a better shape, which by the way already gives them a wealth of information about what their constituents are saying, I don't know if they really stand much to gain from tapping a whole new medium. For more on our work here, see our Analysis of Who's Posting on Congressional Facebook Pages.
I also want to respond to:
"The second is personal and ideological: having a single for-profit business be the gateway between people and Congress seems like a heap-of-trouble in the long term -- though I have to say I really love the team at Popvox and would probably trust them."
I appreciate the love, but I think ideological fears are not very useful. The non-profit model has its place, but I've found that nonprofits have agendas just like everyone else. And not to mention, all of the major social media channels that Clay is advocacting we use are for-profit, and I've personally been doing open government work under a for-profit model for seven years and I've never been told that that was not good enough!
Anyway, I have a lot of respect for Clay --- I've pre-ordered his book --- so I am glad we are able to debate how to make advocacy better.
Here I am:
(Thanks to TurboVote's Katy for the picture.)
In my presentation I introduced attendees to POPVOX and also waxed on about the philosophical side of civic technology. In talks like these I typically talk about the typology of reasons behind open government applications, what open government data really is ("Big Data" applied to government), and refrigerator poetry. I've posted the slides and (rough) text on my publications page.
The other presenters also showed off really valuable tools: TurboVote, an explicit-language polling place locator whose name I will omit here made by the New Organizing Institute, and tools from the MIT Center for Civic Media.
This year we're on track for a banner year in the number of bills introduced and also for fewest bills enacted into law. That means Congress has been both busy and gridlocked.
So far this year Congress has introduced 4,288 bills. That's a lot. Over the last decade Congress has typically introduced 4,000-9,000 bills in a year. Since the year is half over, we're on track for the upper end of that. But few of those bills ever get voted on, and fewer enacted. 20 bills have been enacted into law this year so far, another 312 bills have had some sort of substantive action such as coming out of committee or having a vote in one chamber but not yet in the other. ( 7 of those came to a vote but failed. It’s rare that bills fail because party leadership doesn’t bother to call for votes on bills they know they don’t have the votes for.) The remaining 3,956 are waiting for their moment to shine —- it’s up to the committee chair in the committee they are assigned to to bring the bill up for consideration.
Congress operates in two-year terms. 2011 is the first year of the “112th Congress." The table below shows the breakdown for the last 13 years.
Congress No Major Action Some Action Failed Enacted 106th (1999-2000) 7460 922 28 558 (6%) 107th (2001-2002) 7750 841 5 350 (4%) 108th (2003-2004) 7045 932 13 476 (6%) 109th (2005-2006) 9141 930 22 465 (4%) 110th (2007-2008) 9218 1382 39 442 (4%) 111th (2009-2010) 9239 998 26 366 (3%) 112th (so far) 3956 305 7 20 (0.5%)
Just keep in mind that the 112th Congress is only 1/4th over, so the comparison to other years is tricky. Since 1999, Congress has been consistently passing about 5% of the bills it introduces, though it’s been introducing substantially more since 2005. The 103rd-108th Congresses (1993-2004) were actually more of a temporary lull. Before that, in the 102nd Congress, Congress introduced 9600 bills. So we’re not really seeing a general upward trend here in number of bills introduced, just a return to what had been fairly normal in years before.
The number above include bills (“H.R.” and “S.” bills) and exclude resolutions because they don’t go through the same life cycle and generally don’t end up being enacted as law.
(I originally posted this analysis at http://www.govtrack.us/blog/2011/08/04/kill-bill-how-many-bills-are-there-how-many-are-enacted/ .)
When the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) hosted a conference in 2008 on constituent mail, some normally very professional folks got very heated. Businesses on the outside thought it was their right to get mail from the public in front of Congressional staff, and Congressional staff lamented that with limited resources it is just a little difficult to read through 300 million emails a year.
I attended that conference in 2008 with a mild fever and two days before a major exam for my PhD. (I had failed that test once and if I had failed it again I would have been kicked out of the program.) But I had an inkling that it was going to be an important event, it was, and of course here I am several years later now creating one of those businesses delivering constituent mail to Congress. (I wouldn't have guessed at the time that this is what I would be doing now, though Marci was probably hatching the idea around then.)
Yesterday marked an important culmination of events that started in 2008. Since the conference, CMF has been bringing together those businesses, the vendors that provide software to Congress to process incoming mail, and House and Senate institutional support offices to figure out how to modernize the way businesses like POPVOX get constituent mail into Congress, and at the same time to do it in a way that makes it easier for Congressional staff to do their jobs.
It has been many decades since Members of Congress would read their own mail. If they read all of it now they wouldn't have time to sleep. There is literally more mail for each Member of Congress coming in in a day than one person could read, much less reply to. Consider that a Congressman can represent up to about 700,000 people, and a Senator nearly 35 million. It's good that Congress gets a lot of mail, in the sense that everyone has the opportunity to tell their Member of Congress how they feel. But Congressional staff need the right tools to be able to make heads or tails of the hundreds-to-thousands of messages they receive each day, and then to write replies as best they can. There are a dozen companies whose sole product is to help Congressional offices process their mail.
CMF's "communicating with Congress" meeting yesterday made substantial progress in figuring out how to do mail better. The crux of the project is getting the right information into mail. Namely, if a letter is about a bill in Congress that bill should be clearly identified. If a letter is a part of an advocacy organization's campaign, Congressional staff want to know who organized the campaign. Yesterday's discussion focused on how services like POPVOX would communicate those messages in a more modern electronic system than we have today. But the complication is that POPVOX is not the only business interested in this,Â and everyone has their opinion on the right way to do it. Unfortunately everyone involved is pretty smart so the opinions are all good. Finding consensus was the easiest part of the conversation yesterday. Today, each of the 541 Congressional offices does things differently. In the system we're heading toward, we're hoping for some standardization on the House side so that one technological solution can be applied across the board. (This conversation has been going on since the mid 1990's, actually. What I'm describing here isn't all entirely new, but the technical details beneath it are.)
So this is one of the many things we're working on in the technology department of POPVOX. You know, as if we didn't have enough to do just building an awesome website.
What I describe below came about because of the generous advice and critique we have received from users and privacy experts on the subject.
The Privacy Report
The Privacy Report shows each individual user the exact information that POPVOX has on file about them and why and what we do with that information. It lists your information in categories such as your email address, your street address, and your bookmarked bills and explains why it's important for us to keep this information on file. For instance, we maintain for a period of time a record of all delivered correspondence to your Members of Congress, even if you subsequently delete your comment, in order to protect the integrity of our relationship with you and Members of Congress. We don't want someone claiming we didn't send a letter when we did, or that we sent a letter when we didn't.
You have to be logged in to see what we know about you, of course.
Do Not Track
Do Not Track (DNT) is a new approach to allowing web users the ability to state their preference to opt-out of being tracked by services they may not be aware are collecting data about them. Although there is no one adopted standard for how web sites are supposed to behave in order to be Do Not Track-compliant, POPVOX has taken some initial steps.
DNT is essentially only relevant to advertisers (not us) and widgets. We provide a number of widgets that blogs and advocacy websites can embed to show information from POPVOX. Most of our widgets are already compliant with the prevailing DNT guidelines, and we're working on making all of our widgets DNT-compliant soon.
Although the Do Not Track guidelines are not actually relevant when you visit POPVOX.com directly, we take the unprecedented extra step of embedding only DNT-compliant third-party resources on POPVOX if you have turned on your browser’s DNT option. That means that when you visit POPVOX.com, your DNT preference will be respected by us and any other web content loaded on our site by your browser.
Right now what that means is that we won't embed Google Maps on POPVOX if you have the DNT option turned on in your browser because we know Google Maps will not respect your DNT choice. (Actually only about 3% of our users will ever be shown a Google Map anyway --- we use it in a small number of cases to help you pick out your location.) All of the other third-party resources we currently embed in POPVOX follow the DNT tracking guidelines (they haven't adopted DNT but they comply with the guidelines anyway).
I think we're unique in actually changing the content of our pages in response to your DNT choice to make sure that your POPVOX experience respects your choice, even if DNT itself doesn't say anything about doing that.
For more see our DNT page .
When in DC, attend a hearing.
All right, maybe a hearing isn't quite as fun as the Smithsonian, but if you can attend a hearing on an issue you're passionate about it can be pretty rewarding. I've been passionately advocating for improved transparency for many years now, and there were two hearings today about transparency.
The House Committee on House Administration's Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on reducing costs and improving transparency through the use of electronic publications . The subcommittee chairman (pictured at left below) viewed it as a matter of fiscal responsibility: does the House need to print 441 copies of the daily House calendar --- one for each office.
The subcommittee did something somewhat unusual in calling as witnesses two of their colleagues, Rep. Mike Honda (CA) and Rep. Greg Walden (OR). I was a little disappointed by their testimony. Honda is formerly one of the transparency movement's heros in Congress. I even wrote a limerick about him a few years ago:
There once was a man named Mike Honda,
A congressman us geeks are quite fond 'a,
In markup sessions takes on the chairman, a hulk,
so that we the people can get our data in bulk.
(And the rhymes get worse. For the rest of the poem and some other geeky poems, see this thread .)
Honda's office worked with us transparency geeks on congressional data transparency. In the hearing, he and Walden discussed how to reduce Congress's printing costs. Nothing noteworthy.
You do get to feel like you're getting a special glimpse of Congress when you go in person. Although the subcommittee has six members , only three were present. There were far more staffers present than congressmen, but that's not unusual. Rep. Zoe Logfren sat beside the chairman (Rep. Phil Gingrey) and raised issues including how to further transparency, how to be mindful of the digital divide, and how to accommodate Members of Congress who aren't very digital. (There are two things to note about Lofgren. First, her name is pronounced "Zoh" rather than "Zoee". Second, she's the Ranking Member, which is the term for the committee member with the highest seniority in the minority party (currently the Democrats). Committee chairs are always selected from the majority party (currently Republicans).)
It's also nice when you know some of the people in the room, so bring friends. Two of my friends from the Sunlight Foundation also attended, and I knew one of the witnesses, Tom Bruce, who directs Cornell University's Legal Information Institute. Tom's testimony was the most on-point as it related to congressional transparency. He noted that electronic legal documents have a variety of uses, from improving and reducing costs of the internal workings of Congress to created a marketplace of information useful for businesses, and of course transparency. Tom mentioned my other project, GovTrack.us , in his written testimony to the committee --- thanks Tom! Hopefully the congressmen will turn some of those points into real improvements.
Anyone can attend a hearing. They're held in the congressional office buildings, which surround the Capitol Building, where security is just a metal detector, so you can walk right in. The only time you might be prevented from attending is if the hearing room gets full. That's normal for high-profile policy issues. But committees are getting better about posting videos of their meetings online --- most have videos up promptly now.
At the same time as the hearing I was at, a mark-up session was going on elsewhere with an ironic twist. Although that committee meeting was deliberating funding for government transparency programs, it was not held in a transparent way. Daniel Schuman from the Sunlight Foundation wrote beforehand:
Unfortunately, the hearing will take place in a tiny room in the Capitol, so it is very difficult for members of the public to attend. It won’t be webcast, despite House rules requiring committees to “provide audio and video coverage … in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings,” so you can’t watch the action online.
Committees do some of the most important work of Congress, and while committee transparency has improved markedly even in the short time that I've been following these things, there is still a long way to go.
No online store lets you finish your purchase before giving you a few more suggestions you might be interested in. Prompts to buy more seem pesky, just until those prompts actually get good. When I'm in a shopping state of mind, I first go to the recommendations Amazon has for me. I've been a loyal Amazon shopper for more than a decade now and they have a good idea of what I like. Netflix is famous for doing the same.
We have a similar situation when it comes to federal legislation. Americans know they want to leave comments for their Members of Congress, but they don't know which of the thousands of bills they have something to say about. That's why we're taking a lead from Amazon and Netflix in making recommendations for what you might like to comment on, based on bills you've commented on in the past.
Our system works just like Amazon's. We look at your comment history to see which bills have interested you in the past. Then we recommend similar bills. Of course the hard part is computing which bills are similar. We could compare the text of every pair of bills looking for similar words, but we don't. We could look at who is sponsoring the bills, or what subject categories the Library of Congress has assigned to the bills, but we don't do that either. Instead, we look at which bills other users have commented on. If another user leaves a comment on bills A and B, and you've left a comment on bill A, we're probably going to recommend bill B to you. So rather than doing a deep analysis of bill content, we're letting the behavior of our users guide our recommendations.
Here are five of the most "similar" bills, meaning those who commented on one tended to comment on the other. As you read through the list, if you find one bill interesting, ask yourself if you find the other bill in the same row interesting.
Some of the bills keep coming up because many individuals are weighing in on them. They're hot bills all around, regardless of what bills you've commented on in the past.
As more comments are left on POPVOX, we'll be able to provide even richer recommendations for you!
If you've been taking part in calls to action by the advocacy organizations you are a member of, you would be wise to ask what happens to your letter to Congress after you click submit. Â It's an unfortunate truth that advocacy organizations are often thinking as much or more about building their membership lists than delivering your message to Congress in an effective way, and as a result organizations don't offer any accountability for your messages to Congress that you put in their trust. We're designing POPVOX to be both reliable and accountable so you know whether the effort you've put in to writing a message has been effective.
The trouble with electronic submission is that it is unreliable, and some of us in our industry are suspicious that many messages constituents are writing are not making it into Congress at all. We use the web forms that Members of Congress have set up to send in messages electronically. Some web forms, like Senator Klobuchar's , do accept the automated submission of constituent mail from POPVOX and other services that advocacy organizations pay to get constituent mail in. Other web forms, like Congressman Walter Jones's , prevent automated submission of constituent mail (often using a CAPTCHA ). In part, they do this to stop getting spam. But they also stifle advocacy.
There is no Congress Inbox. There are 541 Members of Congress and each does something peculiar with their electronic inbox.
On POPVOX we provide the first affirmative notice that your message has either been delivered or if we're still working on it. The notice appears on your Home page after you've submitted a comment. Here's an example from one user's account:
We are honest when we haven't gotten a message in yet. In the two cases here, the problem is that while Congressman Coffman has a web form that accepts messages delivered by us, it is rejecting this constituent's messages because it doesn't recognize his or her zip code as being within Colorado's 6th district. (If the constituent went to Coffman's website to submit the message, he or she would face the same problem.) Since we will not lie about the constituent's address in an attempt to bypass the Congressman's zip code check, we will be reaching out to Coffman's office personally in order to get these messages in.
The next time you participate in a call to action, ask yourself if you really believe your messages are being delivered to Congress. If not, come to POPVOX, or ask the advocacy organization to use POPVOX for their message delivery.
Today we delivered the first POPVOX user comment by "email" to a Member of Congress. As you might have noticed, this aspect of the site has been in development during our beta period: we're taking it slow to make sure we deliver messages electronically reliably and with accountability. And when I read the message we sent, I was reminded about why POPVOX is important. (Just a note that Congressional staff and others can already see your comments on POPVOX. This is just about getting comments into their constituent mail inboxes.)
As our chief technologist my job is to build the site, and I am often stuck in the weeds of making sure every last detail of what you see works correctly. Or when I am running sister-website GovTrack.us, my concerns are about data, data, and more data --- tracking bill status, votes, and on. To me, data is fascinating. But it is also impersonal.
It is a humbling experience each time I pick my head up out of the weeds and let it sink inÂ that so many people are visiting GovTrack, and now POPVOX, because they, or you, have personal stories about ways the law has or could impact the important parts of your life. In the first message we delivered to Congress, the author relates that his own job had been outsourced to Mexico. Who am I to be asking members of the public to share their stories? It is a privilege, I truly feel, that anyone should place trust in us to share their stories with and, also, that we may be the ones to pass on those stories to the appropriate Members of Congress. (Sorry if that sounds sappy.)
It will be a while longer before we are able to deliver all messages to Congress. There is no centralized inbox for Congress, and each congressional office handles incoming messages in a different way. Some do not allow third parties such as POPVOX to relay messages, but we'll be reaching out to those offices to change that. Even since before POPVOX got started I have been working with nonprofits and other technology vendors on establishing a better system. Until then we'll be working within the confines of today's reality. On this front, please hang tight.
Nevertheless, POPVOX has never been about being just the deliveryman. Our focus is on creating an open platform for everyone to see what those who participate are saying, and building the tools to make the sheer volume of constituent comments understandable. That is the part that we feel is most powerful. You might have noticed that we are now showing maps of constituent opinion on our bill report pages. That's just one of many ideas we have for how your stories are more powerful when they are public together. I'll write more about the maps when we put the finishing touches on them.
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.
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at email@example.com.)
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