If Congress wants to be responsive to the digitally-connected generations, it must reform itself. Members and their staffs should immediately begin utilizing existing technologies to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of offices, allowing for time to be better-spent by the member and their staff on the issues that matter most.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is seeking ways to bring wholesale reforms to the House. Here are a few ways advances in technology can improve the core functions of the Congress today.
The adoption of platforms like Slack — which seeks to challenge traditional e-mail for dominance in business communication and which recently made headlines with its highly successful IPO — should be an easy first step for congressional offices to better manage their own internal communication and collaboration. Having a unified messaging platform helps keep staff members informed and on task while building an esprit de corps, particularly when a staff is spread out among several offices. With mobile integration and the ability to make voice and video calls from the app as well as file and presentation sharing, it’s a must-have for modern congressional offices.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots are being used today in two House offices (a development I helped facilitate) to help constituents connect with their elected representative. Working around the clock, these chatbots provide a number of common constituent services — like tour and flag requests — through smart automation. Utilizing the power of IBM’s Watson, the chatbots are helping to on-ramp constituent casework requests, allowing staff members to efficiently assist those having troubles with the federal government. AI chatbots are also engaging with constituents with their opinions on legislation and by providing regular policy questionnaires and updates on key priorities.
The expanded use of AI chatbots would make congressional offices more responsive by helping streamline processes, more effectively using staff working hours, and providing greater levels of constituent services. The data automatically collected and analyzed from legislative comments and questionnaires would also help elected officials, and not just their staff, to better understand the wants and needs of their constituents.
Staffers used to browse through the Library of Congress’ Thomas tool to find pithy acronyms and titles for pending and passed bills (yes, there’s an app for that). The Library of Congress, in a joint venture with the House, Senate, and Government Printing Office, heeded the calls from industry and individuals for modernizing their publicly-available legislative search and tracking tools. With the launch of Congress.gov in 2016, lawmakers, staffers, and citizens have instant access to the text, summaries, and vote counts of bills and resolutions, treaties, Presidential nominations, and the Congressional Record. Utilizing intuitive search functionality, Congress.gov provides greater access and transparency of the machinations of our government.
While the improved Congress.gov has been well-utilized, there is much more that can and should be done to improve the legislation being written today and how it is understood before it is passed into law. What we haven't seen is an easy way to quickly determine the intended effects of the piece of legislation. Nor have we seen a tool that will easily determine how those changes may affect federal agencies, employers, and everyday Americans. It is time for Congress to upgrade its own legislative tools to help identify possible unintended consequences of changes to U.S. Code and by extension the Code of Federal Regulations.
By utilizing several branches of AI programming, such a tool would allow Members and committees to more effectively craft legislation that meets its intended results. This tool would also help identify the possibility of competing statutes, as well as highlighting opportunities for reforming sections of federal law that have been struck down by the Supreme Court or are in need of updates.
Perhaps the biggest improvement would also be the most old-fashioned: education and training.
With daily technological breakthroughs, domestic and international cyber threats, and growing calls for Congress to set parameters on the use of personal data, it is imperative for congressional staff to learn the fundamentals of coding and data analysis. This would not only improve legislation and oversight, but would also give them a better understanding of the backbone of what is driving our increasingly information-based and data-driven economy.
Congress should invest in enhanced legislative tools to more efficiently and effectively address the needs of the nation. And, if America wants to continue to lead in digital innovation, Congress must prioritize increased digital educational and training opportunities for members and staff to better-understand the foundational principles driving technology today.
New technology brings value in unexpected ways to every office. That includes Capitol Hill.
Otto Heck is the founder of Rostrum, LLC., a political marketing firm. Heck previously served as Press Secretary to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), as a spokesman at the U.S. Department of Labor under Sec. Elaine L. Chao during the administration of George W. Bush, and as a communications aide to Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.).