Six everyday technologies that would change our Democracy

Like many of you, I too have contacted my members of Congress with an opinion or concern about pending legislation or topics that matter to me. You know the drill: write a letter, or more common of late, make a phone call. During the first few months of this year when I called, the most likely result was a busy signal or a full voice mailbox. We deserve better.

Why is it acceptable that it is easier for my teenager to like a stranger’s funny cat video on YouTube when she’s riding along with me in the car, than for us to participate in our democracy sitting in our own homes? How is it I can know my Uber/Lyft driver will arrive in two minutes, but I have no earthly idea what my Representative is doing today, this week, last month — ever?

Basically our democracy has failed to creatively implement technology to engage us as constituents, voters, and advisers. Lots of nonprofits have mastered this, but right now it seems like our feedback systems for Congress are more designed to suppress and limit comment than engage us in the democracy. Maybe it’s by design.

We don’t need a wall in America, we already have one around our government. Technology can tear down the wall between the government and the governed.

So here are six, very low tech, technologies I’d love to see on my Representative’s website. Ya’ listening Mr. Yoder?

Online Calendars. What is my representative doing this week? Who are they meeting with, what legislation are they working, are there committee meetings to attend, and what’s coming up for votes on the floor? Most of what we get today is backward looking fluff. I’m sure you keep your calendar electronically so it’s really only a permissions and publishing setting. What I’m imagining is something that gives me a real-time view into what’s coming next.

Shared Notes. And when you get done with those meetings, it would be great if you posted notes online for everyone to review. I know this is frighteningly transparent, but you do work for me. So just like when I send a staffer to a meeting I expect to see notes, same goes for you.

Biweekly Vlogs. No less than twice a week I’d like to see a short video or podcast (think less than two minutes) on something coming up in Congress. It would be a great way to explain complex issues and a way to share insight as to why my representative plans to vote in this way or another. No script, no rehearsal. Just first person, authentic and no bullshit talk on a very regular basis. Teenagers have mastered vlogging, so can you.

Mark Up Legislation. UX would be hard but maybe something like Medium where my representative could post a pending bill, write comments and then open it up for responses from constituents. If you’re looking for a research project go figure out what legislation is pending this week, what’s your congressional delegations view and what gaps of knowledge would they like to find to be better informed. Let me know what you find.

Constituent Polls. Suppose there’s an important (they all are) vote coming up in the House this week. Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to be notified of that pending vote and then a way I could vote through a poll online? It could be more subtle than Yes/No, but that would be good to know as well. I’m not talking about it being binding, just some quick directional feedback.

Scalable POTS. Okay this isn’t really a current “everyday technology,” but the architecture behind it’s design is quite everyday for most internet apps: virtualization. Getting ready to launch a big ad campaign, toss up a few AWS instances with a load balancer to handle the load. Design systems to automatically scale during high use. A phone number is simply a POTS (plain old telephone system) endpoint and could (with the proper design), never be busy.

With most of these, you’d have to implement some sort of authentication system to ensure you don’t get gamed by bots or trolled by folks out of your district, but that’s okay because with this level of access, constituents can incur a bit of inconvenience.

I suppose we need to keep the phones and email but my thinking is that if I had more engaging ways to connect with my government, I wouldn’t use them as much — and I’d likely feel more engaged and fulfilled. Reflect on your own life: are you more likely to post something on Facebook for a whole bunch of your friends to see or send a long email to each one of them?

The economics of journalism today means that most of the 535 members of Congress can quietly, and without much supervision, do whatever they wish far away from the visibility of their constituents. They can blockade our input with full voicemail systems or with something as easy as a busy signal. They can refuse to host town halls and not take our appointments. This is flat wrong. We don’t need a wall in America, we already have one around our government. We deserve better.