After Seven Years of Helping People Govern Better Together, We’re Shutting Down the Open Source Public Engagement Platform on 2/10/19

On February 10, 2019 we are shutting down Madison.

If you have used Madison to publish public policy documents and would like to download an archive of your document’s activity, you can do so through the end of Sunday, February 10th (EST). How-to instructions are included at the end of this post.

After February 10th, we will turn Madison into a static website. Published documents, discussions and debates will be permanently archived as they exist today. Should you wish to continue using Madison, you can stand up your own version of Madison.


A look inside institutional constraints and opportunities for congressional teams to improve constituent engagement approaches.

OVERVIEW

In the final section of our findings, we share insights into the mental models and institutional factors limiting innovation, and we offer ideas for overcoming inertia around change.

KEY FINDINGS

1 Offices are underwhelmed and often frustrated by the tools available to them, but they often lack time, resources, and appetite to experiment with new tools or invest in large-scale process innovation.

2 For most offices, the most significant limitations are human hours and financial resources.

3 Teams feel constrained by the rules and entities that regulate technology use, as well as their own limited experience buying and using modern tools. In…


Mapping the processes, technology, and human experiences behind the scenes of Congress’ constituent engagement operations.

“Thanks for calling the office of Congressperson _______. Sorry, we can’t get to the phone right now.“

After the Presidential election of 2016, our country experienced a rising tide of citizen engagement. New apps and tools were invented seemingly overnight to reduce friction in contacting Members of Congress, and advocacy organizations new and old activated hundreds of thousands of Americans to speak up. Quite suddenly, Congress faced reportedly the largest uptick in constituent input in recent memory.

Amidst this flurry of civic engagement, stories emerged of overflowing voicemail boxes, woefully understaffed congressional offices, and bitter, disgruntled constituents.

Meanwhile, on the other side of D.C., organizations such as 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have been busy sharing…


The channels, tools, and strategies that get attention and inform the opinions of congressional teams.

FINDINGS

Staff generally felt that in-person visits, personal letters, and, increasingly, social media were the best tools for being heard by Members of Congress.

The more effort a constituent puts in, the more engagement and impact they can expect.

“The more effort a constituent puts into their correspondence with us, the higher the likelihood the Member will respond themselves.”

“We give more attention and weight to those who take many steps towards change.”

The correspondence that makes its way to Members is subjectively hand-selected, with an eye to resonant personal stories.

“I have a folder on my desk of unique, moving, personal stories for the Member to review and respond to by hand.”

“I hold onto [personal letters] so that our boss can call them back or write a handwritten letter.”

“In our district, student and kid stories carry a lot of weight.”

“Especially thoughtful letters get handwritten responses from someone on the team. …


  • Batching — The process of automatically or manually sorting incoming communications and placing in larger mail sets.
  • Casework — A constituent service where congressional staffers help constituents resolve issues involving federal agencies. Challenges with Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration are common examples.
  • Caseworker — A staffer typically based in the district office responsible for managing a portfolio of casework and proactive outreach based on issue or geographic area.
  • Communications Director — The official spokesperson for a congressional office. This job includes writing speeches, monitoring social media, and drafting communications strategy.
  • Constituent Correspondence — The specific activity in which constituents…

Opportunities for The OpenGov Foundation and our partners to expand upon this project.

Human-centered design leans heavily on the very kind of people and systems-focused research we’ve just shared with you. But this is just the start. Capturing a rich understanding of constituent engagement operations is but one early step to reimagining how our democracy can evolve into the 21st century. We now need to experiment, design new ideas, and gather feedback iteratively to identify the biggest opportunities for impact.


How congressional staff perceive their ability to affect the handling of constituent engagement.

FINDINGS

With such a steady stream of work, teams rarely take interest in making process changes. They also hesitate to change systems due to upfront costs of team training and fear of losing data, even if they’re deeply frustrated with their current setup.

With a strong inertia for the status quo, teams are wary to invest in new ideas or tools because transitions feel risky and time-consuming.

“We’re working the way we do because it’s the way we’ve always done it. Until there’s a solid alternative, it will continue.”

“I know there are tools out there I’d like to explore. I don’t have the time to really invest in figuring out if or how we could use them.”

“We like to experiment and test different tools, but we are rare — most teams won’t invest the time in trying things out.”

“We ultimately didn’t procure this one tool we were considering for a while because we didn’t have an internal lead to handle the transition. …


A human-centered and systems design approach for Congress.

Our research followed a human-centered design methodology, an approach to product and service innovation that combines two elements: 1) an understanding of the human experience of a system — the capacities, behaviors, drivers, and needs — and 2) the development of technical solutions, which we design and test with real people. This approach allowed us to qualitatively understand the current state of correspondence systems and identify opportunities for improvement.


1. Invest in improving the user experience (UX) within approved constituent relationship management systems (CRM).

Many pain points we observed staff experiencing with their core technology — their CRMs — indicated that these tools, while showing signs of improvement, were not designed to best support the human needs of a staffer quickly maneuvering in and around these systems. Features such as language detection, batching, and document review proved particularly troublesome and could benefit from UX evaluation and redesign.

  • Conduct usability tests and focused user research on the workflow, processes, technical capacities, and constraints of congressional CRM users.
  • Identify core pain points and user stories for prioritizing fixes.
  • Hire UX professionals to redesign, test, and refine…


Understanding the “users” of congressional constituent engagement operations.

Correspondence teams are users of both the workflow and technical systems that make engagement possible, and constituents are users of the engagement itself. In order to envision products, tools, and services that support and improve existing processes, we must first have a robust understanding of the needs and behaviors of the system’s users.

To help create and improve tools used by staff, we’ve identified nuances of the role each staff member plays in the process of engaging with constituents, and what they need to successfully do their work.

These qualitative insights about the people who make up the system are…

The OpenGov Foundation

Serving those who serve the people in America’s legislatures, from Congress to your city council.

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