“The time has come to use advanced electronic data processing techniques in the legislative processes of Congress.” – Rep. Jack Brooks (D, TX), 1969.

The House of Representatives cannot effectively modernize without changing the way that it uses and makes decisions about technology. The issue is not simply a matter of software and hardware, it is a fundamental organizational process question that requires a new way of doing things — and that is easier said than done in the People’s House.

As a complex, distributed system of 441 individual offices, 20 committees, two party leadership offices, and a dozen or so administrative and research support agencies, House technology has, understandably, developed in silos over the years, with few opportunities for evaluating and optimizing the overall functioning of the chamber as a whole. This distributed, disconnected architecture is no longer tenable. A “modernized” Congress requires the ability for the component parts of the institution to operate in a coordinated way, leveraging the situational awareness that technology enables to realize greater process efficiencies, free up staff time for higher value tasks, and contribute to greater satisfaction and improved morale for those who serve the American people as employees of the U.S. Congress.

Members and staff alike recognize the need to upgrade congressional technology. In January 2019, when the House of Representatives created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, it included in its authorizing language a specific charge to identify recommendations around technology and innovation.

Shortly after the creation of the Select Committee, the American Political Science Association convened the Task Force Project on Congressional Reform, bringing together Congress scholars and practitioners to “assist Congress in its own stated ambitions to strengthen and reinvigorate itself to better carry out its representative and lawmaking functions.” The APSA Task Force operated through subcommittees created around the Select Committee’s areas of focus and produced a comprehensive report that evaluates a wide range of potential congressional reforms. 

We worked together as part of the Task Force’s Technology and Innovation Subcommittee to detail the range of issues with technology in the House of Representatives. Over and over again, we found that the siloed nature of decision-making and lack of a central point of coordination or place to receive internal and external input on technology challenges and opportunities was the greatest barrier to improvement. To address this challenge, we looked to examples of successful collaborations within Congress, in particular, the Bulk Data Task Force (BDTF) and the Communicating with Congress (CWC) initiative. The BDTF was created in response to requests from transparency advocates, researchers, and technology developers–it brought together staffers from the GPO, Office of the Clerk, House Information Resources, and caucus leadership to work with the development and transparency community to make information about Congress available in machine readable formats.  The CWC project was championed by the Congressional Management Foundation and advocacy vendors who needed a single point of delivery for advocacy messages in order to improve their own operations and manage their own resources. By identifying a staff project manager and bringing together technical staffers from member offices, vendors, and advocacy groups, the CWC project enabled the House to launch a successful application programming interface (API) for bulk delivery of constituent messages.  These projects could not have been successful without member buy-in and bringing together the relevant offices within Congress.

House Technology Working Group

Drawing upon the lessons of the BDTF and CWC, our central recommendation is that the House establish a House Technology Working Group (HTWG) made up of members and relevant staffers from member offices, committees, support agencies and offices that currently manage aspects of congressional technology (including the Clerk of the House and the Chief Administrative Officer, the Sergeant-at-Arms, representatives from personal offices and committees, among others). By bringing together these members and staff with interest and expertise in the key legislative and representative functions of the institution and in congressional technology, the working group would serve as a venue for disparate offices to coordinate and share information about how to modernize institutional operations. This working group can identify and evaluate technology that can support lawmaking, oversight, constituent engagement and overall operations for the institution.

Specifically, we recommend that the working group organize itself around priority areas for House technology and establish task forces to specialize around each. Recommended initial task forces could include: Cyber Security task force, Legislative Office Technology task force, Committee Technology task force, Support and Operations task force. Each task force would collaborate to examine problems and potential solutions in their area.  The HTWG would draw on the work of these task forces to develop best practice recommendations for the use of technology in the House. These best practice recommendations would be clear, accessible, and readily available to congressional offices, helping offices weigh the different technology options and make informed decisions about what tools best support their work.

The HTWG would provide a new–and needed–forum for identifying shared technology challenges, assessing new tools, and providing information and expertise about the technology that works best for Congress. And the working group would lead continuous efforts to evaluate Congress’ tech, especially important given the rapid pace of technological advancement. Genuine and effective modernization of congressional technology requires developing the apparatus for an ongoing, agile process to assess the latest technologies going forward, whatever those might be, and integrate them into congressional operations.

In our view, this HWTG proposal aligns well with many of the valuable ideas developed by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and advanced in their recent House Resolution. In several ways, many of the Select Committee’s recommendations—such as allowing offices to beta test new technologies, providing more opportunities to get staff feedback on technology, and creating a new best practices page on HouseNet—would be more effective if coordinated through a HTWG. In our view, the House Technology Working Group is uniquely suited to support the ongoing technology modernization in the House of Representatives and will help this institution continuously evaluate and update technology.

Kevin M. Esterling is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, and Director of the Laboratory for Technology, Communication and Democracy, at the University of California, Riverside.  Claire Abernathy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stockton University. Marci Harris is Cofounder and CEO of POPVOX.  

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Topics: Congress & Technology