POPVOX CEO Marci Harris Testimony to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress | June 5, 2019
Check one off the bucket list! Last week I got a chance to sit on the other side of the dais and testify in Congress, along with Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation and Professor Michael Neblo of THE Ohio State University.
It was an honor to speak on “improving constituent engagement” — especially given that lawmakers’ questions were so good. Video below and transcript here.
Improving Constituent Engagement
The House Select Modernization of Congress Committee holds a hearing on how technology can improve engagement with…
As these things go, that red light appeared long before I got through my prepared remarks (it was so much shorter when I practiced.) Below are the full prepared remarks along with some suggestions for the Select Committee. I welcome your thoughts and feedback!
Chairman Kilmer, Vice Chairman Graves, and esteemed members of the committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I am honored to be working with the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Congressional Reform’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation to produce recommendations for this committee.
I am a proud former Congressional staffer who loves this institution.
I am also the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, a technology platform with a mission to “inform and empower individuals and make government work better for everyone.”
I came to DC from my home state of Tennessee to pursue an LL.M. in 2006 and interned with the Ways and Means Health subcommittee — eventually becoming counsel in the chairman’s personal office and covering tax, trade, and health. Those were the Affordable Care Act days and the amount of incoming constituent and advocacy input was unprecedented for the time. Going from taking notes on a laptop and digitally searching cases to the paper-based system of Congress was like stepping back in time.
I kept a list of the things I thought could be fixed with better technology — and the list kept growing. I imagined a system that could bring some structure to the legislative advocacy ecosystem — listing all bills online; organizations and constituents would create accounts and post input in a structured, transparent way with outward anonymity but real names and addresses sent with messages to lawmakers in a way that could be easily processed by offices.
I actually thought that this was something Congress could build for itself. I found, however, that unlike the Architect of the Capitol that takes care of the physical infrastructure of Congress — there was no entity that handled the digital infrastructure for Congress in a bicameral, nonpartisan way. To my knowledge, that is still the case. Instead I found my way to a group of Hill “Web Geeks” that got together regularly to dream and argue about how Congress could use tech better. Many of the advances of recent years — both inside and off The Hill — have their origins in this bipartisan “Get Stuff Done” caucus and similar ad hoc groups of staffers and supporters imagining how to do things better and working on their little piece of the puzzle.
I left the Hill in 2010 to form POPVOX (named for “vox populi,” the “voice of the people”) with co-founders Rachna Choudhry and Dr. Joshua Tauberer. We created the system that I had envisioned — delivering millions of messages over the years from constituents in every Congressional district and cataloging position statements from thousands of organizations. Of course, the fact that you are holding this hearing is evidence that our solution was not a panacea. Our POPVOX team solved one technical problem and found many others that needed attention.
I am happy to share with you how we are working on a new way to help lawmakers and constituents connect. But first, I want to offer three framing observations:
1. Individuals are engaging at scale and that is not going to stop.
There are many reasons for the increase in constituent activism, none of which show signs of slowing. For one, professional advocacy tactics increasingly emphasize actions targeting lawmakers — some for legitimate reasons, such as genuine efforts to impact policy — and others in a raw attempts to grow email lists or keep activists engaged for fundraising purposes. Secondly, the rise of partisan news coupled with a decline of local news outlets has effectively nationalized our civic dialogue. People have fewer sources of information about their local school board or city council, but they can spend 24-hours a day hearing about the latest battles at the national level, with members of Congress perceived as their only outlet for impacting the issues of concern. Americans are experiencing a high level political stress, and you see the results in your inbox. Third, social media has been a blessing and a curse for lawmaker-constituent relations, providing an opportunity for members of Congress to communicate much more directly with constituents, but also opening the floodgates for trolls and misinformation — leading some to reject certain platforms entirely.
2. Disinformation is proliferating and Congress has a role to play in countering it
In a time of decreasing trust and rising disinformation targeting Americans, improving communication between members of Congress and their constituents is not simply a matter of mass advocacy or making constituents feel heard, it is crucial to our national and economic security. The millions of interactions each year between individuals and their elected representatives are an important component of America’s “information system” – a system that is under attack. For many Americans, this is their only interaction with the federal government — an opportunity to express concerns, share opinions and personal experiences, and even offer ideas for improvement.
Unfortunately, inadequate technology means that this vast pipeline of information flowing between constituents and Congress is undervalued by participants on both sides. Unsatisfactory interactions don’t just hurt the lawmaker’s standing with constituents, they can adversely impact Americans’ “political efficacy” — the sense that “people like me” can influence government — which political scientists have long noted is correlated to trust, community engagement, voting, and civic participation.
3. Technology created the problem and is the key to addressing it
In any other industry, massive quantities of input from customers would be considered a net positive, not a problem to be fixed. Hearing from constituents at scale — even via form letters and scripted phone calls — is an opportunity for valuable insight and for effective responses that build trust and provide factual information. Correspondence volume is not the problem; technology is. The 541 offices in Congress are a low-margin, resource-limited market with high switching costs, served by a small group of vendors with minimal competitive pressure. The pain of inadequate technology is borne primarily by interns or junior staffers with little-to-no decision making power. This dynamic has allowed these vital systems to languish for years with sporadic innovations timed for incoming freshmen classes. Market forces are not going to improve things without some help.
It is not enough for this committee to examine ways to fix the technical systems of today — though, believe me, I have plenty of thoughts on that — but it must look further down the road and ask how communications between constituents and lawmakers should work in the 21st Century.
Imagine a 21st Century Congress
Imagine a system in which constituents are notified in a way that fits their lives and routines with regular opportunities to weigh in on topics under consideration. The experience is so simple and clear that people participate not just when they are mad or scared or feel passionately about an issue but as a regular occurence. Input comes from across the political spectrum, including from those who rarely participate today: those in the middle. No one ever writes to Congress to say: “I feel very moderate about this issue and encourage you to strike a balance and use your best judgement.” A 21st Century Congress would make it possible to hear from those people too.
Imagine a Congressional office process in which constituents can easily request and receive more information or the lawmaker’s position on a topic. A “just the facts” CRS one-pager — along with the lawmaker’s most recent statement on the topic — is immediately dispatched. Constituent can follow up with additional comments or questions, which either receive an automatic reply if previously addressed or are passed along to the appropriate staffer for more consideration. Casework is managed, tracked, and digitally submitted to relevant agencies. Everyone in the office — including the member — can view interactions in real-time as they are aggregated and displayed in clear analytics.
Imagine a system in which organization position letters include a notation of how many constituents in the district consider themselves “members” of the organization — and these constituents receive a clear notification of position statements that have been submitted in their name, with an opportunity to comment or clarify. Imagine a platform in which committees could engage with stakeholders from around the country, allowing broader diversity and transparency in the early stages of bill drafting.
At POPVOX, we are building what we hope will be the first steps to this “21st Century Congress.” Through a grant from the Democracy Fund, the new POPVOX LegiDash provides basic information for staffers — a calendar, directory, and legislation tracker — but also introduces new ways to engage with constituents:
- Allowing lawmakers to post their positions on pending bills (“support,” “oppose,” or “not yet stated”) which is displayed on the POPVOX bill page and sent via notification to constituents and followers.
- Allowing lawmakers to post updates that anyone can follow and view but to which only constituents can reply. There is no algorithmic manipulation, so we are not deciding who sees what. We don’t sell ads or user data, so there is no incentive for us to try to drive clicks or eyeballs. It’s just a new way to distribute input to constituents and ask for input on specific topics.
- We are also testing stakeholder engagement tools for committees.
As with our first version of POPVOX and subsequent iterations, we know this is not a panacea. We will build, and test, and incorporate what we learn — from lawmakers, staffers, stakeholders, researchers, and constituents — back into the platform. Our “optimization” goals are to increase the political efficacy among participants and improve the flow and quality of information for Congress. We are honored to work with this committee and your colleagues to do just that.
Thank you again.
I have a list of recommendations on a few of these points that I will submit in writing for the record.
Constituent Engagement Recommendations
1. Use vendor approval process to incentivize improved constituent engagement technology
Open opportunities for technology providers to engage with Congress
- Provide annual information sessions and requests for information (RFIs) to create opportunities for new vendors
- Clearly describe requirements, restrictions, and processes to encourage new entrants to engage
- Designate a point of contact within relevant offices (i.e. Ethics, CAO, Franking) and create a process for early consultation
Establish “customer satisfaction” ratings system for technology vendors, including:
- A yearly survey of Congressional offices regarding the level of service and technical performance of their constituent management system
- A requirement that approved vendors maintain a minimal “customer satisfaction” rating to continue their “approved” status (with a probationary period for more frequent review to allow for improvement before approval is removed)
- A central repository for reporting issues or problems so that patterns of insufficient services or software issues are recorded and viewable to other members when they are making purchasing decisions.
2. Task Congressional Research Service with providing nonpartisan fact sheets on key issues
One of the most frequent requests we receive at POPVOX — from constituents and from Congressional staffers — is for a source of brief (ideally one-page), nonpartisan explanations of issues. While we understand that CRS analysis is constantly in demand, a service like this from the Library of Congress — through CRS — could tremendously augment lawmakers’ efforts to provide constituents with factual information. Research has shown that, even when the lawmaker does not agree with the constituent, a considered response that addresses the issue improves constituent satisfaction. The resource could be implemented in the following way:
- CRS establishes page on its website listing available issue briefs
- Includes a clear identifier for each topic and a standardized URL, allowing offices to easily incorporate issue briefs into their responses to constituent input
- Staffers submit requests for new issue briefs to CRS through the web page as they begin to receive constituent inquiries on new topics, allowing CRS to prioritize new issue briefs based on staffer requests
3. Maintain a 21st Century “Frank”
While Franking will always find itself under pressure to respond to new methods of communicating, it is more important than ever. In a world of increasing disinformation, polarized rhetoric, and — soon — the arrival of “deep fake” videos, Franking limitations on lawmakers’ use of official resources to disseminate overtly political, personal, or untrue materials is an important firewall. If anything, these institutional protections should be more widely understood by the general public and the distinction between “campaign” and “official” actions and statements more clearly delineated.
4. Work with the executive branch on digital submission of casework
In addition to advocacy or issues-based correspondence, a major part of any Congressional office — especially district offices — is constituent casework. There are numerous opportunities to work with the executive branch to allow for digital submission and tracking of constituent cases to various agencies. Several Congressional offices are already experimenting with digital submission of forms (e-signature on PDF submitted via email). The executive branch is now undertaking its own technology modernization efforts — much of it at the direction of Congress under new legislation such as the Modernizing Government Technology Act (2017) and the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act (2018). Implementation of these new laws provide opportunity to ensure that executive branch digitization includes advanced programming interfaces (APIs) for the digital submission of casework from Congress. This new functionality would present an excellent opportunity to test the aforementioned RFI process for technology providers, to call for new solutions and to challenge legacy providers to introduce innovative solutions for digital casework submission.
5. Leverage “CWC 2.0” for new tools Congress-wide analytics and
The Communicating with Congress (CWC) service — introduced in 2015, allowing advocacy vendors to submit messages to House offices via API — was a massive innovation. It provides the first accurate measurement of the total (third party) messages coming into Congress, demonstrating, for example, that third party messages jumped from 8.8 million in 2016 to 28 million in 2017. Before CWC, that increase could have only been measured through office self-reporting to researchers (as with the Congressional Management Foundation’s important and oft-quoted 2005 report, “Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy.” Now, CWC volume is tracked monthly, providing insights into the ebb and flow of Congressional correspondence. As CWC begins planning its “2.0,” there is tremendous opportunity to begin to provide even better metrics for the institution and the public as a whole to understand the input that Congress is receiving. These might include aggregate statistics, keywords, or even a list of subject lines.
6. Increase opportunities for problem identification and new solutions with a staffer“reverse pitch” and institutional support for novel solutions
Already, the annual Congressional “hackathons” attract a wide range of participation from lawmakers, civic technologists, and staffers. This event, and others like it, could provide an opportunity for an even deeper dive with staffers to identify workflow pain-points and invite suggestions or solutions from technology providers and researchers. Future hackathons could further identify areas of focus (such as: “civic engagement” or “legislative data” or “office administration”) and issue a broad call for participation. Staffers, researchers, and even citizens could participate in a Day 1 “ideation” session to identify problems and present ideas. These could then be addressed in a Day 2 of “making” and presentations of potential solutions.
Turning these ideas into actual solutions, however, will require a next step of financial support and assistance getting the solution vetted and adopted within Congress. The Select Committee should explore rules changes that would allow for a Congressional “challenge” with financial awards or contracts to solutions that address significant needs or pain points. Promising solutions should receive assistance through the process of vetting and sharing with relevant offices.
Marci Harris is co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, an online platform for legislative information and civic engagement.