Hacking the Hill

#Hack4Congress helps unlock the power of democratic participation

While the founders of the American republic may have conceived Congress as the linchpin of our democracy – the branch of government closest and most responsible to the people – few would argue that our contemporary Congress shares much in common with this early republican ideal.

The partisanship slowing the legislative process to a grind, doused with ample helpings of nearly unlimited campaign contributions thanks to Citizens United, has soured much of the American public on Congress, with congressional approval ratings hovering in the low teens. Recent years have seen productivity in both houses of Congress – as measured by newly enacted laws – as among the lowest on record since World War II. “Our democracy is in trouble in part because of the distance between the American people and Congress and because Congress just can’t get business done,” remarked Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and HKS Academic Dean.

Something has to give. Or, at least new solutions have to be found to make Congress more responsive to the concerns of everyday Americans. That was the premise of the Ash Center’s novel #Hack4Congress “not-just-for-technologists” event held over a blustery weekend in early February that drew hundreds of people to the Kennedy School to learn, discuss, and propose a range of solutions to strengthen Congress.

In partnership with the OpenGov Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to strengthening citizen participation in government, the Ash Center convened a group of technologists, academics, students, designers, and former public servants to tackle a variety of challenges related to the lawmaking process including those focused on improving cross-partisan dialogue, modernizing congressional participation, rebuilding trust, and strengthening campaign finance reform.

Conceived by Maggie McKinley, a Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center and Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, #Hack4Congress was an opportunity to not only address dysfunction in Congress, but to tackle the wider issue of political apathy and engagement, particularly among millennials. “We have a culture of apathy and resignation right now that we can’t solve all these problems,” said McKinley, “but these types of events will bring folks together who might not have seen themselves as part of the solution and get them engaged.”

Tony Saich, director of the Ash Center, said, “We are committed to providing resources to our students and the broader policy community to help tackle some of the most intractable problems facing our democracy today, such as how to get Congress back on track as an institution representative of the American polity as a whole.”

Unlike traditional hackathons, which tend to be tech-centric gatherings revolving around computer programming, McKinley and the Ash Center envisioned #Hack4Congress as bridging the gap between technologists and public policy. “It was very important that #Hack4Congress encompass innovations beyond the technology sector,” said McKinley. “Academics, policy specialists, lawyers – they all have tremendous insight into how to tackle congressional dysfunction. #Hack4Congress wasn’t solely a technological challenge, which is what made it such a compelling event.”

Seamus Kraft, the executive director of the OpenGov Foundation and a former congressional staffer himself, worked closely with the Ash Center to help make #Hack4Congress a reality. “Most hackathons focus on straight coding – straight applications – they don’t focus on the softer human side,” said Kraft. “People who are attending #hack4Congress come from a vast array of interests and backgrounds – designers, developers, political scientists, people who work or used to work in government – you name it.”

In fact, nearly half of the approximately 150 participants at #Hack4Congress did not hail from traditional technology backgrounds. Brandon Andrews, a former defense policy staffer for Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who now works for a Washington-based public relations firm, traveled up from the nation’s capital to participate in #Hack4Congress. Andrews’ team, the “Dear Colleagues,” one of 13 competing in the event, concentrated their efforts on improving the functionality and increasing the transparency of dear colleague letters, which are in essence interoffice memoranda on Capitol Hill and constitute the bulk of formal correspondence between members of Congress.

“While I was on the Hill, members of Congress would send dear colleague letters soliciting congressional support or opposition to a variety of executive branch activities – and even those of private corporations,” said Andrews. “Since legislation is increasingly difficult to pass, a lot of work is being done with these letters.” With legislative output plummeting in recent years, letters from Congress have in many ways supplanted legislation as one of the primary vehicles through which Capitol Hill expresses or tries to influence nearly every aspect of government operation.

The problem, Andrews explains, is that unlike actual bills and amendments, these sorts of letters rarely make it into the hands of the public; nor are there any institutional methods for capturing or otherwise archiving what has become an important part of the work of Congress. Team Dear Colleagues’ solution didn’t employ lines of code and slick graphics, but was as simple as creating a Google group to store dear colleague records for the public.

The failure of Congress to better embrace technological innovation, nonetheless, weighed on the mind of many at #Hack4Congress. Tomas Insua, a master in public policy student and research assistant at the Ash Center, came to the Kennedy School with a tech background having previously worked at Google. For Insua, this failure to embrace technology is exacerbating our democratic deficit. “We’re living in the 21st century, but our democratic institutions function exactly the same as they did 200 years ago. Technology has revolutionized everything – be it the economy, media, education – yet our democratic system remains unchanged,” said Insua. “I think this explains the really low levels of trust in our political system. As a result constituents aren’t engaged and don’t feel represented by our political system.”

Much of this breakdown, argues Kraft, can be attributed to time, transparency, and technology. “Members of Congress, their staffs, and constituents – everyone are leading very busy lives,” said Kraft. “Even engaged citizens don’t have enough time.”

William Delahunt, a retired Democratic Congressman who represented much of the South Shore of Massachusetts and the Cape in the House of Representatives for nearly a decade and a half before retiring in 2010, echoed Kraft’s sentiments. “My life was scheduled in fifteen-minute increments,” said Delahunt. “There was no time to stop and think about the issues.”

Participating in a panel discussion to kick off #Hack4Congress, Delahunt tried to dispel the impression that members of Congress live the high life in Washington, “I slept on a cot in a living room of a shared house.” While the thought of US senators sleeping on cots may be enough to combat notions of lavish and carefree congressional lifestyles for even the most hardened critic of the legislative branch, the fact remains that constituents feel far removed from the daily machinations of Congress.

Jessie Landerman, an HKS master in public policy student saw an opportunity to bridge this gap by helping to develop a new platform that allows constituents to better engage with congressional offices. “I wanted to participate in the hackathon because I’m both interested and hopeful about the potential of technology to reinvigorate American democracy by recuperating citizen participation and citizen empowerment. I think real citizen power in our democracy is low, and technology presents a lot of opportunities to address that problem.”

Landerman’s #Hack4Congress team designed “Congress Connect” as a platform for strengthening the direct connection between constituents and Congress. She envisions Congress Connect as a resource to allow constituents to better schedule meetings with congressional offices as well as prepping those same constituents to ensure that their message is communicated effectively.

“By increasing the quality and quantity of in-person meetings between Congressional representatives and their constituents, we can increase citizen voice and citizen power, and counterbalance the growing power of lobbyists who, at times, represent private interests rather than public ones,” said Landerman.

For her efforts, Landerman and her teammates were named the overall winners of #Hack4Congress in Cambridge and were awarded with a trip to Congress to present their proposal. The team will be joined on Capitol Hill later this year along with the winners of separate #Hack4Congress events the Ash Center is holding in San Francisco and Washington. On the Hill, the Ash Center will be convening a panel of members of Congress and senior congressional technology staffers to review and give feedback to the winners of the Cambridge, San Francisco, and Washington hackathons.

“After getting feedback from Congress about how best to design and implement the tool, we hope to pull together seed money to pilot it either for select Congressional offices or at the state or local level,” said Landerman.

For the Ash Center and the Kennedy School, “the longer term picture is to create many opportunities for all kinds of Americans from all walks of life to actively contribute to this project of improving American democracy,” said Fung.

For more information, visit hack4congress.org.