On “Modernizing” Tech in Congress For Optimization

The bipartisan Select Committee on Modernization has been renewed for the 117th session of Congress for another round of reform discussions. This is great news! The select committee has already come up with over 90 reccomendations to make Congress work better, and I can’t wait to see what they do next session.

That being said, I want to step back for a moment and review some of the recommendations for modernizing Congress and how we might do a better job at describing the technical needs of the institution. Although the name given to this committee is that of “modernization”, I want congressional advocates to be careful when they use the phrase ‘modernization’ in reference to technology changes in Congress. Just because technology is “modernized” does inherently mean that it is better. And I am seeing some cause for concern as this rhetoric inflates the push for change in Congress.

CHAPTER 8 —Increase the Quality of Constituent Communication and the Congressional Frank

In chapter 8 of the committee’s final report, there is a set of recommendations that are all about improving constituent communication in Congress. The committee offered seven recommendations to current practices. Some of these recommendations were small, such as renaming commissions, while most were very broad declarations for change.

The committee recommended Congress “allow for faster correspondence between Representatives and their constituents” (p. 188), recognizing the slow pace that already exists due to slow approval process from the Franking commission, which can take a long time to proceed.

At the heart of this recommendation is the assumption that faster communication is needed. Topic interests move fast in the public, and by the time outgoing mass-mail content is approved by the commission for the Member to send to all their constituents, the topic may be out of date. The recommendation also assumes that fast communication methods such as social media and email “should be subjected to an alternate, quicker review process” to “better reflect modern forms of communication“. Thus, outgoing mass-communication is not moving fast enough for the ‘modern’ world of tech.

This slow-going communication is also reflected in the outgoing mail process. The turnaround time for most offices to respond to individual or campaign emails has severely lagged. The flood of incoming constituent communication was already huge before the pandemic, but the shut-down of society in the Spring of last year brought on an additional tsunami of contact.

While this flood is happening, a new company called Indigov popped up that claims to hold the solution – make responses as automated as possible. The company has created what they call a “custom segmentation process” to send customized automated message responses to constituents. Their website claims to reduce responses to constituents from 32-64 days to 8 hours. That sounds pretty dramatic. And again, we see this reinforced assumption that faster communication is needed.

I agree that Congress has developed inefficient and overly bureaucratic proceses to communication. They’ve done so at a time where technology makes people expect faster and more efficient processes from their government. However, I’m concerned that the rhetoric of efficiency will be taken too far and that modernization will only mean efficient optimization.

When we start treating constituent communication as something to optimize for efficiency, we change the way in which Members and staff perceive the role of constituent input in office. No longer is individual constituent input something to be read, understood, and reacted to by staff. Rather, it is something to be dealt with and optimized for low-effort collection and (often) quantitative metrics of constituent opinion.

I’m not saying this is entirely bad. Right now, understaffed offices are drowning in communication from too-big constituencies. That communication is of little value to policy staff, and anecdotal evidence finds that only half of all constituents read what staff write back. It makes sense that Members and staff want to limit their attention to these low-value systems as much as possible. But if we take a step back, the idea of automating constituent communication takes away from the point of constituent communication – to listen and interpret the views and needs of the constituency.

If the methods that are provided to constituents like email aren’t providing valuable avenues to listen, why bother to put emphasis on them at all? Why do we continue to add extra staff, extra software, and extra time to these constituent communication avenues?

The introduction of technology has pushed the rhetoric of efficiency and responsiveness in a way that has altered the expectations of communication on both the constituent and Member side of the equation. What has happened is that the call to modernize constituent communication has actually been an effort to automize constituent communication.

Congress doesn’t need efficiency as much as it needs efficacy. Better questions to be asked here are

  • How do we make citizens’ voices useful for the decision-making process?
  • How do we reform constituent communication so that it’s designed for deliberation and connection more than automation and distance?
  • How do we educate citizens and get them involved in the process of fixing constituent communication?

My Personal Recommendation:

  • Be transparent with constituents.
  • Help them be part of the solution.
  • Give correspondance staff more flexibility to test new ideas.
  • Don’t treat automation and faster communication as a long-term solution to these problems.

There’s a lot Congress can do to innovate and “modernize” for the needs of the public. But it cannot fall into the trap that faster, efficient, and automated communication will solve their problems.