Straight Talk from Staffers on the Growing Congressional IT Crisis
The OpenGov Foundation periodically convenes a bipartisan, on-background focus group of top Congressional staffers to understand their challenges, their workplace and what is needed to improve both. Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate agree: unless Congress immediately adopts 21st century technology, data and operations, it will further lose its ability to fulfill its constitutional obligations and represent the American people.
Are you better off now than you were three years ago? If you work in the U.S. Congress, probably not. Your workload has skyrocketed, your job has only gotten more complex, and what you’re paid is peanuts, considering you do one of the most difficult and important jobs in the United States of America.
It gets worse. The technology and resources legislative branch staffers have to accomplish their mission continue to be anything but adequate. It isn’t that there is no budget — Congress spent at least $288,000,000 on tech and digital in 2014, according our analysis of Congressional disbursement data. It is where and how those tax dollars are spent — really, the institutional information technology (IT) culture and rules—pointing to far greater hurdles standing between the Congress we have and the one we need. As Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the number four Republican in the House, says:
House and Senate staffers of all ages and political stripes paint an unvarnished picture of an institution in IT crisis. Everyone agrees that Congress is approaching a breaking point, and that the time for an across-the-board overhaul was yesterday. Staffers, whether with decades of experience or fresh out of college, do acknowledge scattered improvements and innovations — like ongoing efforts to modernize legislative data and systems — but they do not report reaping the benefits themselves, in their offices or with their constituents. This is a major takeaway from our on-background conversations, which we began recording and transcribing back in October 2013. The need to connect progress made in how laws are made was also the main thrust of a panel discussion we joined at the June 2016 Legislative Data Transparency Conference.
When 92% of Congressional staffers believe the IT is better everywhere else, something has to change — or something is going to give. Listen to what real people working on Capitol Hill really think about their workplace, the tools they have to do their jobs, and what they believe must be done to save Congress from slipping further into the paper-based past. [Note: Emphasis is mine throughout.]
Obstacles to Innovation are Everywhere in Congress
A communications director for a senior Republican Senator underscores the larger IT culture and innovation problems in Congress. These appear to be the same kinds of Mount Everest-sized challenges that 18F and the U.S. Digital Service are starting to tackle in the Executive Branch.
“We’re just using such bad tools and I don’t know how you get around but they’re probably—there are procurement challenges, there are security challenges. There are all sorts of barriers to doing our jobs better, but where do you start…[voice trails off]?”
Online Petitions Gum Up the System (And No One Reads Them)
A legislative director for one House Democrat opens up about one of the hardest realities of contacting Congress as a constituent.
“I think a better tool for constituent correspondence is just absolutely essential but I also think that the bigger problem is the strategy of advocacy and this race to the bottom that every advocacy organization has. Do they seriously think sending — getting our constituents to send emails is the effective way to advocate? We all have a Change.org rule in Outlook so we never even read [the constituent petitions and messages]. And so we went from 29,000 emails, receiving 29,000 emails in 2012 to 54,000 in 2013 and that doesn’t even include MoveOn, CREDO, things like that.”
A House Republican legislative assistant echoed the sentiment.
“It’s just hard to take it seriously when you’re getting like 3,000 emails at once from a single group and they all say the same thing. It’s just the same thing, it’s not personalized at all and it makes it hard to actually want to respond in a meaningful way, or at all. At best, we’ll send a standard response like, ‘We got your form letter.’ Who wants that?”
Lack of Consistent Software & Data Standards Causes Mass Confusion, Frustration
A chief of staff for a mid-level House Democrat believes the anger and helplessness his team experiences is shared by those they are supposed to be representing.
“It is messed up that every congressional office has a different website, and different [constituent correspondence] policies, different contact-your-Congressman forms and different everything. It’s a huge problem for us and for every office I know, and I can only imagine how much it sucks to be a constituent on the outside.”
Better, Direct and Digital Access to Accurate Congressional Information Needed
One of the impacts of paper-based Congressional processes and old-fashioned IT is that is allows partisan media to distort the facts or skip over the truth, says one chief of staff for a senior House Republican.
“If the access to our legislation increases in a way that the average American can understand, then the people aren’t as reliant on these media sources that are often slanted biased and have a personal agenda. The Internet should make it possible to get real-time, unfiltered truth about what is happening in Congress, but I haven’t seen it yet. And judging from what I read coming in from constituents, they haven’t seen it yet either.”
Talented People are Leaving Congress Due to the Ongoing IT Crisis
One digital communications staffer for a senior House Democrat had this to say on the brain-drain that is killing current Congressional capacity, and driving away new talent.
“I think it does a disservice to this country when our congress is run by bunch of 25 to 28 and 30 year old ego maniacs who are also underpaid and overworked. You have designed a system that the staffers, talented or average, are going to leave as soon as they possibly can. Which means the only people that are practically going to stay is people that have been here forever. They bowl over all the new newbies they deal with every year, and they make everyone do things the same way. You’ve got to find a way to get that settled, I don’t know the way that you could do that but that is a challenge, maybe the challenge. We must figure it out for the country.”