Where’s the 18F for Congress?

The American people deserve a digital support team dedicated to their most democratic institution.

In late 2013, the White House’s centerpiece policy achievement on healthcare was at dire risk of failure. The Affordable Care Act had become law, but its sign up portal — healthcare.gov — crashed. In response, the White House quickly assembled an in-house talent pool of technologists to fix the problem. The success of this surge team created momentum for a more long-term solution across the federal agencies. The experts were retained and the US Digital Service was born at the White House. Around the same time, a larger, government-wide tech team was approved and given office space (18F is their address in DC).

Today there’s another part of our government in massive need of modernization. It is central to the functioning of our democracy, but it often stops working. You could even say it crashes routinely. It is too big to fail, but somehow it never gets in the crosshairs of a tech and data driven modernization strategy: The US Congress.

18F technologists continue their work to bring our democracy into the digital 21st century. Their service is supported by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. And since they came to the healthcare.gov rescue 5 years ago, they’ve deployed across our federal government to solve modernization challenges and improve transparency by giving citizens more access. 18F made campaign finance information and the FBI’s crime data available and searchable, for example.

We need an 18F for Congress.

Congress is currently coping with a paralyzing volume of digitized data. Incoming correspondence has increased up to 800% over the past decade, not including social media. The policymaking situation is dire. Congress is working with 45% less expert capacity than it had 40 years ago. It is only conducting about 50% of its committee hearings — a key educational bridge to the public. And here’s the kicker. Based on retirements alone, the House of Representatives will lose 752 years of institutional memory in November. That’s 25% of all committee chairmanships in this session of Congress.

Our American legislature is the world’s most powerful national democratic assembly. Despite this status, it has fallen behind. It is not reaping the benefits of modern-day information exchange with the outside world. It is not organized to cope with complex policy challenges. Nor can it make use of citizen talent for idea generation and problem solving. This capacity gap is typically chalked up to political dysfunction like polarization and money-in-politics. But it also exists because of institutional obsolescence. When it comes to technology, the Senate might as well use flares and messenger pigeons to communicate. The House is more advanced. It’s more like a blinking VCR. Congress’ backwardness was self-made, even intentional. Reversing this condition must be as well. Why not an 18F for Congress?

Congress has dedicated and talented technology staff, but they are too few to meet the demand. This means that Congress cannot compete with the President on policy and our democratic system cannot compete with the private sector on technology and data. Further, Congress cannot be responsive or effective in its most important public accountability function: informed deliberation. In a recent survey, congressional staff themselves identified serious capacity gaps.

A tech talent pool for Congress is not a new idea. Seamus Kraft and his team at OpenGov Foundation (OGF) have advocated a digital service on Capitol Hill for years. Inside the House of Representatives, staff have created colleague networks to help each other. Former Hill staff now living in California are also working to fill gaps.

“If you encounter a problem running the operations of your Congressional office, there’s no official place to go.” says OGF researcher Meag Doherty. A former staffer, she notes that tech solutions to modern problems are often solved directly in a member’s office and might never surface for others to leverage. And about an 18F for Congress? “A space for sharing and change-making in the legislative branch is a natural evolution for Congress. They are ready.”

Since many original 18F technologists have reached their 4 year tenure, we should entice some of them to come to Capitol Hill for a tour. They could accelerate Congress’ tech learning curve. All of US Code is now interactive. Committee rooms are functional production studios. Members and staff use Smartphones. The team could spend their first months helping improve existing projects. We need to act quickly before this space is privatized. And, before the talent disappears. Canada just snagged the former head of 18F.

The time is right to do this. The reputation of democracy as a competent governing system is at risk across the globe. Our own democracy is obliterating norms of behavior. We’re facing attacks from other nations. We must make our institutions more resilient.

A crack team of talented technologists in the Capitol would be a significant step forward. It could be in place for the 116th Congress in January, 2019. Of course Congress should fund this technology capacity for itself. But it won’t, at least not in the near term.

Foundations, private philanthropists or the private sector working with academia must step up and take this opportunity to dramatically improve our democratic infrastructure. How about a Computer Emergency Response Team for Congress? As the Mueller investigation daily demonstrates, the information integrity of our democracy is a national security issue.

Placing citizen-serving expert staff in Congress is routine. Dozens of academic organizations have fellows programs on the Hill. Public and land grant universities — already funded by Congress — could supply a digital democracy support team for our legislature. Bringing the world’s most powerful representative assembly into the 21st century must be one of today’s most important public priorities.

It’s time to step back and put our nation above all else. This democracy is fragile. We must move forward quickly where there is already agreement and bipartisan support. We need an18F for Congress.

A version of this piece appeared in The Hill newspaper earlier this month.