How Technology Can Change the Way Congress Approaches Policymaking

Or, What I learned from Uber, ZocDoc and Instagram


Technology has changed almost everything.

One institution remains stubbornly anchored in the past. It’s where I work — the United States Congress, a 19th Century institution using 20th Century technology to respond to 21st Century problems.

We operate in a world where you can have a package from Amazon arrive on your doorstep the same day; where Uber has a private driver at your front door within minutes; but when it comes to Congress, it takes three weeks for someone to get a form letter response to his or her questions. And major policy changes like tax reform take decades.

It’s no wonder Americans are frustrated and angry.

Our Founders conceived the most innovative system of government the world has ever seen. A government close to the people — one that is open, responsive, and transparent. Yet, today, Congress operates more like the Department of Motor Vehicles than Uber.

With the digital revolution of the last decade, Congress has pondered a number of “technology” issues — important concerns about net neutrality, patents, and cyber security — but the most fundamental tech challenge we face is not in the laws proposed to govern existing technology, but in our own way of doing business and crafting policies.

The internet and smartphones have transformed every other aspect of our lives. So why not use those technologies — and more — to transform an out-of-touch Congress and update the federal government’s outdated models?

That was my message to the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City earlier this year, and it’s been my mission for the past six years in Congress: to make public policy and representative democracy as bold and creative as our modern technology.

Back in 2009, I wrote a memo to the Speaker — which I jokingly titled “From PC to Mac” — outlining how voters were connecting differently than when I first ran for the House in 2004, or when he first ran in 1990.

“It was a basic concept: get Members of Congress to create social media accounts.”

We started with a “New Media Challenge.” (Yes, social media was still new then.) It was a contest to see which Members could best use these platforms to engage with the people they represented. Within two years, 79 percent of Republican House Members were on Facebook and 89 percent were using YouTube. Today, Republicans in the House have nearly 100 percent adoption.

That was just the beginning.

After my colleagues elected me Republican Chair in 2012, the first thing I did was tear down walls and repaint the remaining ones to create Congress’s first “startup.” We put in bright colors, installed chalkboard and whiteboard walls for brainstorming, and even dedicated a room to be our Innovation Lounge.

Next, we threw away the old website and email system and replaced them with responsive, modern, measurable programs. We built an intranet for the first time. We stopped issuing so many press releases and started communicating with infographics and videos.

Thinking less like a Congressional office and more like a startup.

I know, I know. This may sound silly, but these simple steps were a revolutionary culture change on Capitol Hill.

With the basics in place, we are now moving toward our next institutional shift: listening and responding to citizens in real time on their preferred digital platforms. In order to be positive disruptors that move citizens closer to their lawmakers, we’re using the latest engagement tools and innovations.

But it goes beyond just using technology to connect with and respond to citizens.

What also excites me is how we can harness technology to rethink outdated government models so they become smarter, more transparent, and more accountable to Americans.

The power in Washington, D.C. is centered on the status quo — outdated systems, models, and programs built for a previous century. With more silicon and less concrete, we can open up those models to return power and independence to every man, woman, and child.

Veterans could see a doctor within hours instead of months. New ways to beat and treat diseases could be discovered through innovation and science. And students could have the chance for a real future because lessons and curricula are individualized to unleash their God-given passions and talents. Still, we can do more. And I need your help.

The best innovations don’t come from the federal government;

they come from you — men and women harnessing ideas in their garages and studio apartments that eventually change the world. If you have concepts that you believe will help Congress become more like Uber and the federal government operate more like Amazon, please let me know.

We can build a better, more representative democracy through technology, and ensure what Abraham Lincoln called the last, best hope for Earth will endure past the 21st Century.

There’s an app for that… or will be soon.