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Can We the People Use the Internet to Make Congress Smarter?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, November 24 2010


My exposure to the strange ways of Congress came young when, as a not altogether bright 19 year-old intern to a Democratic senator who shall remain nameless, I was tasked with researching and writing a policy brief that would instruct my boss on how to vote on some esoteric piece of telecom legislation that was a theretofore unknown topic to me. I had a couple of hours to do it, no idea on where to start, and no real information to work with. This, I thought, is our democracy? Really? Are we sure?

Enter into that space a new software platform called PopVox, soft-launched in recent weeks by a team that includes a former Hill staffer, a former lobbyist, an open government programmer, and a designer, backed by early money from Tim O'Reilly and with the ambitious goal of using the Internet to connect the thousands of often very young people who make Congress go with better information than I had available to me, which, at the time, consisted of whatever I could dig up on the Internet and some rather hollow reports from the Congressional Research Service, the in-house research shop of Capitol Hill.

PopVox's tagline is "Putting the Voice of the People in the Language of Congress," and this early iteration does, indeed, focus some attention on giving the American public a chance to engage with the scores of pieces of legislation floating around Congress at any one time. Registered users can leave comments on legislation -- "We're trying to tie activism to things that Congress can actually do," i.e., pass bills, says Marci Harris, who moved to Silicon Valley and started up PopVox  after leaving a job as legislative counsel to Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) earlier this year* -- and the platform aims to slice and dice those comments based on users' self-reported addresses, so that staffers working in members of Congress' personal offices can figure out which comments actually belong to their constituents.

But there's a slightly different dynamic laying at the true heart of PopVox, and it has to do with more subtly, but maybe more powerfully, tweaking the model we have now where congressional staffers get their information -- namely, from the lobbyists whose phone numbers and email addresses they have on hand, the handful of entrenched Washington advocacy groups, and maybe online sources like Google and Wikipedia. On PopVox, advocacy groups of any size can register their support for or against an active bill like, say, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act , and post their policy papers and talking points on why they feel the way they do. That's useful enough. But beyond that, House and Senate staffers who have verified their positions through a congressional email address can also quickly pull up contact info for the people inside those organizations who can help them better understand the issue. A quick call or email, the thinking goes, and that legislative aide or policy counsel has gotten added insight into whatever piece of legislating he or she has been tasked with covering.

A bonus PopVox use: staffers planning hearings on the Hill can use it to find witnesses. The end game is a scene where an expanded cast of minds and faces are making their presence known on Capitol Hill. (A note -- PopVox, the company, actually styles itself as "POPVOX," but that's just too painful to replicate.)

"What the model does is that it identifies that it's the staffers, and not actually the members of Congress that matter," says O'Reilly with a soft chuckle, when reached by phone. O'Reilly tied his interest in PopVox to his earliest days exploring the whole Gov 2.0 field, when he found that the email blasts and call-your-congressperson tactics on modern advocacy were "generating big piles of responses" but left citizens as ineffective advocates and Hill staffers overwhelmed. What PopVox is trying to do, said O'Reilly, is to create a discriminating connection between people outside Congress who care about a particular issue and those inside Congress who might be receptive to hearing what the public has to say. "It's really about giving the long tail of advocacy a voice," says O'Reilly.

Of course, there are other sites out there that aim to connect the public to the innerworkings of Congress -- GovTrack and OpenCongress spring to mind -- but their aspirations seem to stop short of PopVox's conversational ambitions. Josh  Tauberer happens to be both the founder of GovTrack and the chief technology officer of PopVox. Why get involved in the latter? "I got to the point," says  Tauberer, "where I thought that building an app around data wasn't going to be enough, and the next way to do engagement was doing something that involved citizens more, and that might also involve more legwork, rather than just taking an existing dataset and hoping that something powerful can come out of that. Data," says Tauberer, "only takes you so far." The PopVox team also includes Rachna Choudhry, their chief marketing officer, and its design work is done by William Donnell. As for paying for the site, Tauberer sees future revenue in advertising and creating special reporting services that might appeal to lobbyists and journalists.

Is there any hope for the Internet creating a way for the public to better inform Congress, and for Congress to actually get smarter for it? For it to, organizations have to be incentivised by the expectation that they'll actually be more effective players in the political space because they spent time on the site. And for that to happen, a critical mass of Hill staffers need to make use of the site, which can be difficult in Congress, which functions more as hundreds of fiefdoms rather than any sort of coherent whole. O'Reilly admits that he's not sure this trick can be pulled off, saying that PopVox or a platform like it would have to become a core part of how a Hill office works in order for it to achieve its goal, something akin to infrastructure. Congressional staffers I talk to are intrigued; we're at the point of harvesting Facebook "likes" to figure out what people are thinking, said one, so what not give something like this a go? PopVox is in beta during the lame duck, and they're constantly iterating. One thing going for it is that the bar is, as it stands, not set all that high. "We don't have to be right all the time," says Tauberer. "We just have to be better than the way things were before."

If they do better than having 19 year-old interns winging it with minimal information and a bit of pluck, they'll have achieved something.

*Tweaked to more accurately reflect Harris's role on the Hill.