New Media as a Change Agent

On new tools to participate in public policy

Americans use technology practically every moment of our lives, and things develop so quickly that we often forget how much has changed since our parents’ generation.

We wake up via cell phone alarm, drive to meetings assisted by Google Maps, and keep up with colleagues through the day over Slack (even email is now antiquated). Nearly every step of the day is driven by innovations our parents and grandparents never imagined.

And maybe some they did

For years, though, the one area that affects everyone’s lives — public policy — has stayed immune to the advances of new technology. We’ve all heard the stories of politicians who vote on technology policy while barely understanding the tech, like Chuck Schumer — who says he sends “maybe one email every four months” — or Lindsey Graham and John McCain, neither of whom have ever used email.

It’s not just the politicians. Congressional technology in general is outdated. Office telephones rarely keep up with high call volume and have tedious, outdated logging systems on the back end.

Luckily, new innovations have begun to disrupt this old system, often with remarkable results. In 2016, an app — Brigade — allowed users to pledge support for candidates, and ended up predicting Donald Trump’s victory when most polls got it wrong. This follows the much-vaunted work of Cambridge Analytica in micro-targeting voters on behalf of the Trump campaign.

But not everyone follows elections and gets involved in campaigns. Most of us just want to know what our Members of Congress are doing and how it’s affecting us. A host of apps and services exists to do just that.

I promise it’s not terrifying

Here’s what you need to know.

Finding & Contacting Your Representative

They found the dislike button

Just this week, Facebook made news as it unveiled Town Hall, a new feature allowing users to find local, state, and federal representatives and call or email them through the app.

This tool is the first to be hosted natively within Facebook, but a slew of apps and services help people find and easily contact their representatives.

Democracy.io has a three-step interface where users can select their member of Congress and type an email within the site. Countable lets people record video messages to government officials, sign petitions, leave comments, and be notified when people take votes. Other sites like Common Cause offer similar services, as do the official House and Senate websites.

Tracking Bills
 
Congress votes on thousands of pieces of legislation every session, and most people don’t read bills on a regular basis. That’s why sites like Govtrack exist: To provide readable summaries and automatic feeds of voting records based on information that comes from the official Congress webpage. Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica also track similar public information.

Finding Accountability
Discovering who represents you and what bills they are voting on is terrific — but only the first step. Holding politicians accountable for bad votes is the next.

In an era when younger generations are constantly at risk from dysfunctional fiscal policy, it’s no exaggeration to say that votes to continue this waste and irresponsibility are the definition of bad votes.

Open the Books roots out this waste in real time by capturing and posting all disclosed government spending at its online database.

And objecting to votes?

Brigade and Countable are easy platforms for building and demonstrating broad public coalitions, while Change.org and NationBuilder provide for quick online petitioning and advocacy drives.

The newest data tool shows promise of tying the two goals together.

SpendingTracker.org expands upon the open data model in fiscal policy by tying votes to outcomes.

While the Congressional Budget Office provides estimates for what every bill will cost taxpayers, this site is the first to collect all the data and cross-reference it with voting records to assign responsibility.

By creating an open model to account for these constantly complex policy decisions, we can disrupt perpetually dysfunctional and outdated spending policy. Now instead of general discontent over Congress spending too much, voters can see how much money their members of Congress have voted to spend, and what bills got us there.

Here’s why that matters

The United States is a vibrant, fast-moving, entrepreneurial country whose politics often fail to reflect as much. Technology is ultimately a tool, a platform that can be used for good or bad.

But with technology comes new promise to force politics to catch up to the innovations of the private sector.

Instead of, as the song goes, waiting on the world to change, we — the innovators and creators — are going ahead and changing it. With so much at stake, there’s little other choice.