Does Congress need a digital service?

As trust in elected officials and media reaches historic lows, open government advocates believe increased transparency and public engagement are vital to rebuilding that faith.

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As public trust in democratic institutions reaches historic lows, open government advocates believe increased transparency and citizen engagement -- through tech solutions -- are vital to restoring that faith.

OpenGov Foundation Executive Director Seamus Kraft said at a March 13 Sunshine Week that Congress, especially, has room to improve on these fronts. To do so, Kraft suggested building and deploying a congressional digital service team -- like the executive branch did following the botched Healthcare.gov rollout -- is a realistic solution.

"Congress has been in the middle of a slow-motion Healthcare.gov crisis for decades," Kraft said at the event, which was hosted by the National Archives. "We have a Congress that is struggling with tech and the internet age."

Kraft said that right now, the most effective way citizens can be "truly listened to" by elected officials is either through calling their offices or meeting with them in person. This limited accessibility is, in his words, "absolutely nuts."

These outdated business processes on which government continues to rely contribute to the public's frustration with "traditional bedrocks of functioning society" and make Congress's job harder, said MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy. "As government processes get slower and expectations get higher, it creates a lot of friction."

According to Kraft, Congress's lagging tech is due, in part, to its lack of resources to meet the rising workload and demand for civic engagement. Cutbacks have only exacerbated the issue.

Kraft said that Congress could put its IT budget of about $300 million to better use, and that the obstacles preventing congressional modernization are primarily "due to reasons of politics or problems of imagination."

Kraft said this is where a congressional digital service team fits in: To help Congress identify their tech problems and take advantage of tools that "already exist" to reverse declining public trust by improving congressional business processes and civic engagement.

This team of technologists would exist "outside the partisan process, but inside the institution," and could be located in the Library of Congress, he suggested.

Kraft also said the because "we have gotten to a place with size and scope of the problem" that is so pronounced, he believes there is a "very, very high" chance such a digital service team could be "stood up, if not working," during this Congress.

Additionally, as more -- and younger -- people want to get engaged with government processes, Morisy said government needs to "rethink the FOIA process" to increase transparency and accessibility, which will reduce response times and public frustration.

Beyond simply transplanting records online, accessibility entails making public records "easy to understand," Morisy said. "I don't think you should have to be a lawyer to file a FOIA request. I don't think you should be government archivist to understand what a response means."

Morisy said that even in situations where certain information is redacted or not released due to privacy concerns, clearly "explaining why that information was withheld goes a long way to building trust."

NEXT STORY: Canada, U.S. talk data sharing

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