Congressional fax machines and a return to civic design

Mollie Ruskin
Feb 7, 2018 · 5 min read

After leaving the U.S. Digital Service last year, I swore off (in earshot of really anyone who’d listen) taking on any DC or Federal government-based projects.

I was exhausted from four years of banging up against the walls of bureacracy. And I didn’t want to put one foot anywhere near the new occupants of Barack and Michelle’s former residence.

But alas. I must have a weakness for big, messy, civic problems because I’m now here to share a bit about some very DC, very Federal-government focused work I spent the better part of last year digging into.

In my peak post-government napping-on-the-couch phase, The OpenGov Foundation approached me with a prompt I couldn’t look away from.

By early 2017, it was clear that our country was becoming engaged in large scale citizen advocacy at a rate we have perhaps never seen before. While petitions and marches and calling campaigns took over the Twitter airwaves, tech minds swiftly started inventing new and easier ways for people to pound on the doors of Congress. But quickly, stories of jammed Congressional phone lines, fullup email inboxes and unplugged fax machines started filtering into the press.

The OpenGov Foundation, ever the admirable mix of inquisitive and practical Congress nerds, wanted to get behind the scenes:

How was Congress—the institution responsible for responding to the input of a newly enraged American populas—handling the weight of all the new voices? And what could be done to make things work just even a little bit better?

A self-proclaimed civic engagement junkie, it was incredible to me that I was being asked to apply human-centered lens to this question. Using design to make sense of an opaque but foundational component of the way we engage with our elected leaders? Didn’t take me too long to get back up off the couch.

We met with House and Senate staffers in DC and in Congressional districts around the country. We slid onto leather couches in waiting areas, sat behind the cramped desks of interns, gawked at artifacts of local pride and photos of handshakes, observed as staffers sorted digital piles of email, and listened in as constituents shared their hopes, fears and fierce opinions over the phone.

And then we spent hours staring at process maps and digging through the nuances of interviews and workshop notes to try to extract meaning and opportunity out of what is essentially a very human operation.

While this work was about operations and staff capacity and a complex process for answering heaps of messages, I quickly found us stumbling over a set of questions fundamental to the function of our representative democracy.

What does is mean “to be heard,” to be counted? Who’s voice makes it through? Is louder better? Does volume have an impact? What is ‘representative’ in the age of the Internet?

Ultimately, the question comes down to how we design a modern and responsive way for The People to be heard and accounted for by our elected leaders in the 21st century.

The report that we wrote for The OpenGov Foundation may not answer all of these questions — for in truth, these are things we must reckon with collectively as a country. But I’m proud to say this work does help pull back the curtain on how and why Congress makes order out of the loud, complex and continuously-incoming ideas of the citizenry. Take a peak below:

The report is long so if you’re looking for the tl dr, check out this very cool story in WIRED about the project or pop over to our summary of findings for some quick hits. For my fellow user researchers out there, hit up our methods section for a glimpse at how we approached this meaty research.

To all my friends who lead organizations and advocacy efforts fighting for change, I hope this work can help you craft strategies that respond to what’s happening on the other side of the phone. For people working in and around Congress, a) bless you because you very likely have a thankless, underpaid job and b) I hope this can help you build support for leading change from within.

And for anyone who’s made a call or sent an email (or a dozen) to the actors you entrust with representing you in Congress, here’s a glimpse into the lives of the people and systems behind-the-scenes.

I needed a bit more time flat-out-on-the-couch after this work wrapped at the end of 2017. Burnout is real and schlepping back and forth to DC is still a drag.

But I’m deeply grateful that I was called in for this endeavor. It was an incredible privilege to have access to the halls and people of power; one that I do not take for granted. Even more so to be tasked with telling the story of its unsexy insides in a practical way to be used by many.

It was also work that taught me to grow as a freelancer and a collaborator, as well as a manager and people-builder-upper. I was given the freedom to recruit, hire, collaborate with and learn from my very first Mollie-built team. It turned out to be a humbling delight to work alongside the three inspiring, dedicated, and hugely capable young women who came on this adventure with me: Esther Kang, Hanya Mohorram and Meag Doherty, you’re the real deal. (Also, everyone: hire them!)

I’m still learning how to fashion a unique place in the world of design and change-making at scale, where I can do work that makes my heart sing, with people who are just straight rad, while not losing track of myself in it all. To my new OpenGov Foundation fam: deep gratitude for the chance to do just this on a timely and salient exploration into one unique corner of our democracy.

Hard problems are…hard.

Mollie Ruskin

Written by

design + social justice + people-centered change + tech + radishes + rooftops + other miscellaneous meanderings

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