Not everything is political, but increasingly, everyone is.
In a democratic country with a growing population, everything’s a resource, an allocation, a public good or ill. There was a time when some things just were, and I am barely old enough to remember that time. We now seem to live in a country that is wrestling between issues of scarcity and nimiety—in which we feel compelled to voice our concerns, complaints, and opinions. Not so long ago, there were simple things that weren’t political, such as school lunches, urban trees, and fish in the oceans. Now, even the most mundane elements of our world have causes, campaigns, and advocacy platforms (e.g., there has been an international movement, spearheaded by cooking guru Jamie Oliver, to make children’s lunches healthier and more sustainable).
Enabled by technology, our concerned voices are piling onto the democratic process in record numbers. But the underpinnings of the legislative process are weakening; accessible legislative information and healthy dialogues between citizens and legislators are difficult to come by. And while we view the bureaucratic process of building legislation as arcane, we rarely glimpse how anachronistic the technology within the process is—from minutes stored in microfiche to bills released online to the public days after they were available in person. The tools of our modern legislative process are old and ill-fitting. If we listened well enough, I think we’d hear the sound of our democratic process cracking under the weight of our new demands.
That sound, for me, was the voice of a U.S. Capitol security guard saying to me, “Oh, there’s nothing left to see here, now. We’re closed.” Closed? Who was the Capitol closed to, and why did this guard assume I was a tourist?
It was 4:25 p.m. on a hot, humid, summer afternoon in the nation’s capital in early July 2008. I was dressed in heels, skirt, and blouse, and had just tromped through three government buildings to get my two gallery passes to watch Senate and House proceedings. Outside the Capitol dome where I’d served as a House intern, I stood at the mouth of the velvet rope as the door to the dome closed. Proceedings in the House and Senate were still underway—but I didn’t have access that day.
I wasn’t a tourist. I hadn’t come to “see” government like a specimen under glass. I was here to observe the U.S. legislative process, but Congress views most constituents who make the pilgrimage to D.C. as tourists, not participants. Congress built a $621 million tourist center at the Capitol, investing relatively little in making its process and information as accessible.
Standing outside the Capitol in the heat of a D.C. summer, I was just another tourist shut out of Congress in person and online.
If I had chosen to visit Congress via Thomas.gov that afternoon, I would’ve found bill information lagging about 48 hours behind what was actually happening in Congress. I would never know that members of Congress and their staff have a more modern, organized, thorough congressional website accessible only to them (on the House and Senate intranet). If I was passionate about an issue, I would’ve cranked out an email or forwarded a form letter to my congressperson. And it would’ve gone into a stack of several thousand emails my representative received that day, one of millions collected in Congress each week; my voice would add to the electronic cacophony of voices of other Americans, a barely manageable, never-ending stream of advocacy that requires our nation’s elected officials to spend more time in document management than in dialogue with constituents. My efforts would be largely ineffective; frustrated, I might choose to believe that my voice didn’t matter at all. Like the 57% of Americans who believe that they don’t have a say in government, I would feel marginalized, when more likely I’d just be caught up in a poor document management system.
I’m not suggesting that we build a new and improved legislative process, one robustly equipped to handle our every whim. I’m suggesting that we need delicate, distributive tools for placing political pressure on our democratic process. If we’re all going to be actively involved in government, we should gain techniques and tools to tread lightly on a system that has served us so well.
Nine years ago, I was a college student who loved politics and was very optimistic about citizens’ abilities to change laws and influence policy. It was my job to help organize fellow students to keep tuition low, expand affordable child care on campus, and generally represent them in the state legislature. In 2000, we had the Internet, we had Washington state’s legislative website, and we had email, form letters, and so on. But none of it made participation in the legislative process more effective for citizens.
After a failed attempt to quickly rally opposition to a new tuition increase bill, I felt powerless. As I sat at my desk, I felt like something about public participation in the legislative process was broken. Just then, an email popped into my inbox. It was an update for skiers like me; it told me the exact number of inches of snow on every mountain in the Pacific Northwest. I thought, “How can I know the snowpack at the top of a mountain, but not what’s going on in my state legislature?!?”
It hit me that the only thing standing between citizens and full engagement in the legislative process was the lack of tools for monitoring legislative information and communicating effectively within the process. Individuals needed personalized tools to help track exactly what they cared about, and to notify them in time to take action. They needed better ways to communicate with legislators—form letters were a poor substitute for skilled citizens. I couldn’t anticipate that this idea would take me on an eight-year odyssey through every element of politics and technology. Eventually, it led me to founding Knowledge As Power, an online nonprofit service that helps citizens become informed and effective within the legislative process. Here’s what I learned along the way.
During the revolutionary period in the United States, Americans struggled with the secrecy of English-controlled legislatures. Legislative secrecy was cited early in the Declaration of Independence for why the United States chose to secede. The fourth point of grievance the founders cited was “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” This means that neither elected legislators nor citizens could access their laws or the legislative process, making it difficult for these proceedings to be accurate or accessible.
Americans’ frustration with inaccessible public records led to the country’s rights to press freedom and Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, mandating public distribution of legislative information. The country’s founders strongly believed in the public’s right to information (excluding what was absolutely necessary for national security). In fact, our modern inequality of access to legislative information runs counter to what the country’s founders deemed necessary to a healthy democratic process. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, James Wilson remarked, “(Americans)…have the right to know what their Agents are doing or have done, and it should not be in the option of the Legislature to conceal their proceedings.”
While the writers and signers of the Constitution probably never imagined the communications technology we have available today, it seems clear that they believed clear records on legislative, budgetary, and agency information were necessary for maintaining an active, informed citizenry and an accountable government. And to maintain that informed citizenry, individuals and organizations would need to access legislative information to leverage power in the legislative process. When we glance over some of the least sexy portions of the Constitution, the founders’ dedication to public records becomes apparent.
Article 1, Section 5, Clause 3:
Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.
Article 1, Section 7:
But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively.
Yet the information services that legislatures provide often fail to meet the public’s need for timely, accessible information. The modern “journal” has become legislative websites, a basic information technology that should meet the information needs of citizens, activist groups, and elected officials. Yet government information sources are often too complicated, poorly organized, or legalistic for average citizens to use. Websites for state legislatures seem geared toward professional lobbyists, staffers, or agency officials, not public participation. Many of these “online journals” share limited or delayed information (such as Thomas.gov), are missing portions of the legislative record, or allow inconsistent access to information across houses of the legislature. Worse, some governments charge individuals for access to timely, accurate, detailed legislative information. The state of Arkansas, through a private corporation called Arkleg, charges $250 for legislative information per session. The state of New York has an entire legislative office charging $2,500 per year for accurate legislative information. Even if the information is available to the public, it is written in legalese; 80% of Americans read and write at an eighth grade level, while legalese requires a law degree to read accurately.
James Madison said, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” I think many of our legislatures need to examine whether they are living up to the high standards for public information and citizen inclusion that the founders envisioned. Given the technology available to us today, there’s really no excuse to fall short.
In 2005, between work on a presidential campaign and college, I’d spent lots of time researching and designing ways for the public to more easily track legislative information. Determined to tailor Knowledge As Power, the nonprofit I would found, to meet the needs of citizens and legislators, I took an internship in Congress. I wanted to see the problems our legislative process faces from the inside out. What I found was startling, but not surprising.
Within the congressional intranet, I could gain access to every bit of legislative or committee information I needed to understand the content, context, and trajectory of a bill. If something was in hard copy in a committee room, I could get it digitally on the intranet site. However, if I visited Thomas.gov, Congress’s public site, I’d have to sift through poorly organized information that ran at a 24- to 48-hour lag to its congressional counterpart. Hard-copy documents available in committee rooms were not available on Thomas.gov. I couldn’t help but question why there were two separate sites with unequal access to information. If legislators and their staff members need robust, well-designed information to do their jobs, wouldn’t citizens need at least as much to do theirs?
Thomas.gov, like many state and local government sites, uses clunky search tools that don’t match up legalese terms with the plain-English terms Americans commonly use for political topics. Without guidance or skill, citizens find it hard to discover the legislative information they’re looking for. Bill documents are often stored as PDFs, which makes it difficult to search across bill documents for terms. Worse, antiquated document management systems, typically adopted between 1995 and 2000, are expensive to modernize, trapping legislative information in systems that cost-cutting governments cannot afford to update. Systemic problems with government information distribution obscure the legislative process from citizens, making it difficult for them to participate fully or hold their legislators accountable.
I experienced a prime example of an obscured government on a research trip to Albany, New York, in the spring of 2009. I spent two whirlwind days in New York’s capital learning the ins and outs of the state’s legislative information management. Two days in Albany had me feeling like I’d gone back in time, to somewhere around 1972. Albany’s mismatched modern architecture juts out of the hillside on which the medieval-castle-like state capitol sits. Walking into the lobby room between the Assembly and Senate chambers, I was shocked to see that it’s actually full of lobbyists. Sharply dressed in suits and shined shoes, they anxiously awaited Assembly or Senate leaders to show up. They huddled in conversation on the large wood and green velvet couches. In a corridor nearby, offices of New York newspapers bustled with actual reporters who seemed straight out of central casting. If you’ve toured or worked in other legislatures, you’d be shocked by the scene in New York. The state is an anachronism—nobody’s lobbyists congregate in the lobby area, and the press barely exists inside legislative bodies anymore. Hallways of government are usually quiet and empty—everyone is working online from somewhere else. I’d discover that lobbyists congregated at the capitol to get an edge on valuable legislative information, a precious commodity in New York.
Sitting in the Assembly’s gallery, I looked out on a small sea of state Assembly members engaged in voting on bills. I opened the Assembly’s bill tracking website, pulling up publicly available information on each bill that came before the Assembly. What I found online was shocking; there was no mention of any of these bills coming up for vote that day—no schedule, no notice, nothing beyond the first draft of a bill and maybe one other copy from committee. What I’d find out on my tour of Albany’s legislative system is that the only people who knew bills were coming up were those in the Assembly, the partisan-appointee clerks who control the release of legislative information, and the lobbyists who paid the state $2,500 to access the full record of New York legislation from the Legislative Research Service (LRS). New York may be the most expensive state to gain access to accurate legislative information, but it’s joined by other states that view access to legislative information as a means to political power or increasing the legislature’s funding.
Over the next day, I found that the New York State LRS sells legislative information at a per-session subscription of $2,500, with the funding going to supporting offices within the bill drafting and publication process of the state. I found that transcriptions of minutes from Senate votes and debates were copied onto microfiche with 35-year-old machines and filed in drawers, and only one computer was available for looking up where the transcripts were in the file drawers. For copies of transcripts, a citizen would need to request them at twenty-five cents per page—perhaps not exorbitant fees, but certainly prohibitive of timely access to records. I went from one office to the next, learning that information about the state’s legislation was spread across several offices, each of which was bogged down in old technology, or stuck in red-tape rules with which the majority party could refuse to release information. New York may be at the extreme end for lack of transparency and accessibility, but the state is not an anomaly. Governments across the United States and the globe are struggling to modernize their technology and become more transparent. Luckily for the citizens of New York, the state Senate’s new CIO, Andrew Hoppin, and his crackerjack team of techies came on board in February of 2009 and began taking the Senate toward transparency and modern technology.
Recently, I caught up with Hoppin to find out what progress his office has made in the New York State Senate. The improvements his office has made in just 12 months are a lesson for all governments. The Senate’s quick shift toward transparency, information modernization, and open information policies have radically improved the information publication within the state, catapulting them from a 1970s framework with a dash of late-1990s website technology to a full-fledged modern legislative body.
Hoppin and his crew are part of the political-appointee structure of the New York State legislature; unlike many legislatures, the administrative and clerical staff work for the party in power. With the 2008 election of a new Democratic majority, the New York Democratic Senators made a commitment to transparency and modernization. Making good on their promises, they brought Hoppin in to modernize the Senate (it should be noted that the Assembly and the Senate are not guided by the same technology or transparency policies—they set their own agendas). Quickly, Hoppin assembled a fresh team of techies with a bent toward doing things inexpensively while utilizing open source tools and well-adopted data standards. The team researched how information flowed through the Senate and (something I often suggest to governments) found where the information was in its earliest data form.
An example of that early data is the Senate’s transcripts, typed up by Candy, of Candy Co., a one-woman transcription wonder with a locked-in contract for transcription services with the Senate. Her transcripts went through a process in Microsoft Word to be published only on the Senate intranet and into the microfiche process I described earlier, resulting in microfiche rolls of transcripts that were neatly tucked into a file drawer and made accessible to those who made a pilgrimage to the office to pay for copies. To add those transcripts to the online records of the Senate, Hoppin’s office posted them at the gorgeous and comprehensive http://nysenate.gov/legislation.
Through Knowledge As Power’s research in 2009, I noticed a trend amongst legislatures of all sizes—either their electeds or the techies realized their technology wasn’t sufficient to meet the needs of a modernized constituency seeking greater access and transparency. Without partners in technology and policy, modernization stagnated and often resulted in governments remaining locked into old technology or spending a lot of money contracting out to inadequate third-party software systems.
The New York State Senate, in less than a year, with legislative leadership and a fresh technology team, overcame what I would call the most complicated, tension-filled, overly politicized legislative environment and anachronistic technology I’ve ever seen. They are quickly progressing toward more transparency, access, and modernization.
Now, the New York State Assembly—and other legislatures—have an example to follow.
In the spring of 2005, I moved from one Washington to the other, where I worked on Capitol Hill and researched the communications patterns of Congress. I wasn’t a professional researcher and I didn’t have institutional backing. I was an intern. An old one. At 25, I was intensely interested in how the highest-end users of constituent feedback—senators and congresspeople—managed the influx of email and phone calls from constituents. So, I worked days in a congressman’s office, spent free time in the Congressional Research Service, and asked pretty much any legislative staffer I met out to coffee or drinks (they preferred drinks). As an intern in Congress, I was on the frontline between constituents’ communications and the legislator’s office. Virtually every email, phone call, fax, and letter goes through an intern’s hands. Though the office I was in was exceptional in its dedication to communicating with constituents, you couldn’t help but feel that most offices were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that they weren’t able to hear what their constituents were saying. It was a daily, constant roar and the only sound that stood out was the rare, individual voice.
Research backs up these observations. From the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) report in 2004:
Quality is more persuasive than quantity. Thoughtful, personalized constituent messages generally have more influence than a large number of identical form messages. Grassroots campaigns should consider placing greater emphasis on generating messages of higher quality and reducing form communications.
The surprising thing I noticed was that these communications would go through four to six other staffers’ hands before returning to a constituent as a hard-copy form letter. It was quite likely that you’d receive thousands of emails in a single day. Each name was matched up with a name in the voter file, contained in a clunky email system built by Lockheed Martin. Even phone calls would be typed into emails—to the same legislator’s office—so that hopefully, the system would auto-group emails on the same topic. In this process, a sample of letters (mostly form letters) were scanned for major common points, and then responded to with a form letter. Each legislative staffer had to execute a long list of tasks each day, in which he spent more than half his time just dealing with the quantity of feedback (my estimate from observing and asking legislative staff members to estimate).
Though research such as CMF’s has found that legislative staff members highly doubt the legitimacy of form letters, they still value hearing from their constituents. What I noticed, again and again, was that when people called or wrote an email, you could tell when they weren’t feeding you a line straight from an advocacy group. They were genuinely concerned about an issue—it affected their lives—and the polite conviction in what they said was gripping. As much as issue groups like to send millions of form letters, it was these personal, repeated voices that caught the attention of legislators and their staff members. When I told staffers, “It seems like we’re getting a lot of individuals emailing/calling about this bill,” they’d respond, “Like an advocacy push?” and I’d respond, “No, these seem like real people—and they’re from all over the district.” That’s when staffers took notice.
In 2004, the CMF found that citizens sent more than 200 million emails to Congress. State legislatures don’t have it much easier. Through my personal research interviewing Washington state legislative staff members in 2006, I found that they received 800 to 1,300 emails in their Outlook inboxes each week. Sometimes they receive peaks of 8,000 to 16,000 emails per day. While I shadowed a state senator for a day during legislative session, she took a 30-minute break between meetings to read through constituents’ emails. As she wrote quick, personal responses to constituents, she mumbled, “What are these?” She’d just received 1,000 emails from labor union members in Michigan who wanted her to support an anti-Walmart bill. She said, “You know, it’s hard enough [to manage email] without hearing from thousands of [citizens] from another state.” With just one legislative staffer to manage all the office’s duties, the email load contributes 20 to 50 hours per week of work.
It’s easy to be cynical about members of Congress and your local elected officials, to believe that they don’t care about what you think. But my experience from talking with hundreds of them and their staff members is that they genuinely do care—they’re just overwhelmed and fatigued by the sheer number of impersonal communications they receive. They’ll sheepishly admit that it’s easier to deal with one lobbyist than 20,000 form letters from constituents. I can’t blame them. What I can do is build a better system for open government and civic participation.
We don’t need to build a new and improved legislative system, one robustly equipped to handle our every whim. We need delicate, distributive tools for placing political pressure on our democratic process. If we’re all going to be actively involved in government, we should gain techniques and tools to tread lightly on a system that has served us so well.
How do we do that? Via a few simple strategies in the short term and a few in the long term.
These simple strategies won’t solve everything in our legislative process, but they’ll serve to prop up a participatory structure as we build larger solutions to the challenge of widespread civic engagement.
Advocacy groups would have you believe that all you need to do to “make your voice heard” is to send off their form letter or sign their petition. This isn’t true; you’re more likely to be effective if you’re speaking with your own voice, at the right times, and speaking with some experience or knowledge of the position you’re advocating. This doesn’t mean you need to hold a PhD in advocacy; you just need to do a few online searches (or use KnowledgeAsPower.org) to find out the following:
Who are my legislators and when are they in session? Do they prefer email or would they rather I enter a letter in their web form?
Why does this issue matter to me? How am I affected by it? If you’re not affected, state the basic rationale for why you care. Cite a statistic or example, but don’t write a midterm paper on it. You should be able to explain your position on the issue with a few sentences.
Who, if anyone, is already advocating for my issue? Instead of seeing them as a vehicle for delivering your messages, find out from them how you can become better educated on the issue or more meaningfully involved.
Don’t believe the advocacy group deploring you to “Sign our petition!” or “Send this letter NOW!!!” While they might be pushing for a bill, they’re also just trying to build their membership lists and demonstrate their group’s influence. In the meantime, those mass mailings make your communications impersonal and ineffective. Instead, send a two-paragraph, personal email to your legislator explaining who you are and why you are affected or care about this issue. Send it to your elected officials only when a bill is in their house. Send it as early in the legislative session as you can. Even better, talk with your legislators outside of any legislative session. Make a follow-up call or two to “thank or spank” your legislator for her vote and be exceedingly polite when you make that call. Finally, don’t feel like you have to advocate on everything; find a few issues that are really important to you and stick with them. With less effort, you’ll find yourself making more of an impact, having more expertise on the subject, and feeling more confident in your role as a citizen. In the meantime, legislators will actually be able to hear you and the other people who live in your district.
Mark your email subject headings with a standardized subject headline. Instead of saying, “Vote YES on the Fluffy Bunny Bill!!” use the following basic advocacy headline (BAH) format to make finding and reading your email easier for your elected officials:
|Chamber Bill Number-Position-Zip Code-Zip Plus 4 Number|
In real life, this looks like:
|“Hi, I’m emailing you about House Bill number 1234, I’m pro on the bill, and I live in your district in this neighborhood in the 98115 zip code area.”|
|“Hi, I’m emailing you about Senate Bill 6987. I’m in favor of amending a portion of the bill. I live in your district in this zip code, and in a particular neighborhood.”|
Use BAHs to help your email slip into overflowing inboxes, receive more personalized responses delivered faster, and give the impression, “I know what I’m doing here.” For more examples of BAHs, see KnowledgeAsPower.org.
Activist groups need to participate in electronic advocacy more delicately. Although using form letters with members does result in more letters sent, it also means fewer letters are read, more communications get lost in the shuffle, and members of those groups become politically anemic. They should use BAHs in subject headlines, cease their arms race to send more form letters via web-form-breaking technology, and begin teaching their members how to engage at a higher-quality level with their own elected officials.
The following long-term solutions will require us to build strategic, standardized solutions to legislation tracking, constituent communications, and activism.
The United States should adopt a modern standard for disseminating its legislative and government information. This standard should be computer-readable (file formats such as PDF are easily read by humans, but computers just see them as a file, whereas computer-readable data allows computers to quickly organize and aggregate data); I suggest that the country go with the current standard, XML. While there are variations on XML—web services, RESTful web services, even XSL—this basic file format can allow for simple distribution of government information. Although each government in the United States functions like a small business that picks and chooses its in-house technology, the country should strongly consider making a national standard format for all governments to share their public information within. Not only would this make information much more accessible to individuals, groups, and government entities, but it would save them money and time. Private companies have thrived on selling reorganized government information, costing taxpayers millions of dollars—needless, expensive services that could be eliminated by standardizing government information into a format anyone can use.
New, low-cost services could spring up via the nonprofit and government sectors, helping all those involved in government do so with greater ease at lower cost. In the meantime, it would speed up the dissemination of legislative information and create greater government transparency. A great example of this standard being implemented is in my home state of Washington, where the state’s Legislative Service Center developed a low-cost web service, which is available for free to agencies within government and independent organizations (such as Knowledge As Power).
Government, nonprofits, and the private sector should band together to release open source tools for updating document management systems and distributing their information in XML. This effort could be supported by innovative foundations and philanthropists who value transparency and want to leave an indelible legacy of open government. Updating internal document management technology and creating bridges to release outdated document formats in XML will take investment; governments shouldn’t have to choose between transparency and basic services in their budgets.
At the age of 29, I’ve been in the “open government” field for almost a decade. When I started envisioning the tools necessary for an informed, effective citizenry, I felt like I was the only person focusing on this area. I thought it’d be possible to build technology to help governments be more open and enable citizens to participate effectively. It’s great to finally feel like I’m part of a group of people working for open government; none of us are fighting for this issue alone. I see our work toward open government as an opportunity to fulfill our vision of what the United States should be.
I dream of a day when personalized, online legislative information gives individuals the capacity to be meaningfully involved in the lawmaking process and still tuck the kids in at night. I want legislators, elected by their constituents, to talk with their constituents again—I want it to be easier to hold a town hall meeting than to schedule a meeting with a lobbyist. I crave equality of access to information so that whether you live in the House of Representatives or in a small town, you have the same information at your fingertips, at the same time. I hope that instead of playing “gotcha” with governments and hoping sunlight sanitizes everything, small groups of dedicated citizens will scrub away, rebuild, and strengthen the dilapidated portions of our laws and society. This vision of the United States is one in which individuals intimately know their capacity to make change, knowledge that no government, pundit, or poorly designed government website can take away from them. It’s a vision of Americans fulfilling our potential as a democratic society.
Sarah Schacht is the founder and executive director of Knowledge As Power, an online nonpartisan system that helps individuals effectively participate in the legislative process. She’s been a Republican and a Democrat, has worked on presidential campaigns and in Congress, and her mission now is to help “average” individuals become powerful citizens.
 2009 National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) report, finding that 43% of Americans feel like they have a say in government.
 New York’s legislative clerical staff would typically be nonpartisan support staff in other state legislatures. However, in New York, these staff (like those who manage updates to legislation public records) are selected by the majority party, allowing for information management by a party’s staff.
 LRS is not affiliated with political parties, but rather is under the “Legislative Bill Drafting Commission” appointed by both houses of the Legislature. LRS’s sale of the legislative information provides revenue for general bill drafting services.
 Accessible only within the Senate’s shared database.