Reboot Congress 2017 Recap [2 of 2]

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On May 17th, Reboot Congress celebrated the politicians, policy wonks, staffers, tech experts, and others who are on the front lines of modernizing the House and Senate. We summarized the first half of our D.C. conference last week, which you can see here.

We will recap the second half of the day in this post, shining a light on the best insights from the innovative minds we assembled for five panels. While the panelists have very different backgrounds and political leanings, they all agree on one thing: A more tech-savvy Congress is not only much-needed, it is also a wonderful opportunity to implement reforms that will make the first branch of government better at its job.

BUILDING A MODERN CONGRESS: THE BULK DATA TASK FORCE SUCCESS STORY AS A MODEL FOR OVERCOMING INSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES IN CONGRESS

Kirsten Gullickson, Dr. Josh Tauberer, Dr. Molly Reynolds, and Daniel Schuman.

Daniel Schuman, Policy Director at Demand Progress, convened a panel to discuss the successes of the Bulk Data Task Force. Presented in partnership with Demand Progress, this panel included Kirsten Gullickson, Senior Systems Analyst with the Office of the Clerk; Dr. Josh Tauberer, founder of GovTrack; and Dr. Molly Reynolds, Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. These Reboot participants have been integral to the process of publishing Congressional data in machine readable formats.

The value of bringing this group together is not just in highlighting the improvements that have resulted from the work of the Bulk Data Task Force. More people now have access to better information, benefiting members of Congress, advocates, and constituents.

The key takeaway from the story of the Bulk Data Task Force, however, is an institutional success story. Individuals both inside and outside of the institution placed demands upon Congress. Demands that are being increasingly met. Because of the continued efforts of people like Josh, Kirsten, Daniel, and Molly, the publication of machine readable data is now a Congressional practice. It’s a change that makes the institution more efficient and effective.

INVESTING IN HUMAN CAPITAL: ORGANIZATIONAL AND TECH STRATEGIES THAT EMPOWER CAPITOL HILL STAFFERS TO BE MORE EFFICIENT AND EFFECTIVE

Yuri Beckelman, Carrie Adams, Wilsar Johnson, and Kathy Goldschmidt.

Yuri Beckelman, Deputy Chief of Staff for Congressman Mark Takano, led a panel of three experts who unpacked the changing ways legislators are using tech to connect with their constituents. TechCongress partnered with us to present this session.

Carrie Adams, Deputy Digital Director for Leader Charles E. Schumer, described how the “constantly churning ocean” of turnover among Hill staffers makes it hard for offices to execute their digital opportunities. She created a digital academy to address this issue and educate staffers. Wilsar Johnson, Digital Director for US Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, shared how she has used digital creativity to streamline constituent correspondence and respond with video from the congresswoman.

Kathy Goldschmidt, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Congressional Management Foundation, made a great point during the question and answer session. She stressed that the strict limit on staffers per member of Congress, 18 full-time employees between the district and D.C. offices, makes modernization efforts that much harder.

50 SHADES OF PROCUREMENT REFORM: WHY THIS SUBJECT SEEMS HOT RIGHT NOW AND HOW TO MOVE BEYOND THE HEADLINES

Aaron Snow, Dave Zvenyach, Jessica Yabsley, and Shannon Sartin.

Shannon Sartin, Procurement Specialist at USDS, moderated a lively panel with quite the reference in its title.

Dave Zvenyach, Executive Director of 18F, made a number of compelling points about the current state of play. He discussed the ways private sector innovation can impact government, and he had a hilarious line about his goal: making “good enough for government work” a compliment and not an insult. Dave also highlighted that while the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars annually on IT, many people do not think that money is being used wisely.

Jessica Yabsley, Communications Director at Data Coalition, discussed some key benefits of the recent DATA Act. She said that it “levels the playing field.”

Ken Ward, CEO at Fireside 21, explained how open source technology and stacks spur innovation.

DIGITAL SERVICE TO THE RESCUE: LESSONS LEARNED SO FAR AND HOW TO EXPAND THE IMPACT OF THIS MODEL

Laurent Crenshaw, Aaron Snow, Erie Meyer, and Seamus Kraft.

Seamus Kraft, Co-Founder and Executive Director at OpenGov Foundation, served as the moderator for this chat on federal digital service. (OpenGov sponsored the panel.)

The United States Digital Service’s Erie Meyer opened the discussion with a jarring video. In the clip, a veteran tries to apply for health care on the VA’s website, showing how inefficient, cumbersome, and frustrating the process used to be. A redesign of the website proved much easier to use.

Laurent Crenshaw, Director of Public Policy for Yelp, spent 11 years on Capitol Hill. He talked about how the commercial sector is motivated to constantly optimize to attract customers, while government doesn’t have this same incentive. Aaron Snow, 18F co-founder and cBrain North America COO, kept with the theme of pointing out inefficiencies in digital service. He explained that the hoops you have to jump through increases based on the size of the government contract. Snow suggested that creating smaller digital contracts, instead of one enormous contract, expedites the end product and is far less risky.

MARKET LEADERS IN CONGRESSIONAL TECH: THE TRIUMPHS AND CHALLENGES OF BUILDING A COMPANY FOCUSED ON DISRUPTING CONGRESS

Alex Kouts, Alex Wirth, and Aaron Ginn.

Our own Aaron Ginn led a discussion with Quorum’s Alex Wirth and Countable’s Alex Kouts. The session explored the pitfalls and possibilities of carving out market space in this field. Kouts explained that one of his biggest challenges is a vast, yawning education gap. He often needs to sell Congressional offices on the importance of technology, which sounds basic and shocking because it is. Wirth chimed in and highlighted the importance of having a tech ally inside an office who can help this process.

Kouts observed that while many in the private sector embrace new tech opportunities to maximize operations, Congressional offices only do so when the fear of negative attention forces the issue. He also explained that companies should separate profit from partisanship: taking hardline stances can alienate potential clients and limit opportunities.

Toward the end of the panel, Kouts uttered a line that is at once deeply true and a strong reminder of why we need to upgrade federal legislation and modernize Congress: “Government, generally, has a huge user experience problem.”

The day concluded with a rooftop party overlooking the Capitol. We presented the 2017 Door Stop Awards, in partnership with the OpenGov Foundation.

The entire day was an effective, energetic, and informative reminder of just how much Congress needs tech reform. Technological advances and innovation will not only lower costs and increase efficiency. These advances open up new frontiers for connection and communication, encouraging new ideas and practices that will help us all.

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