Dear Internet, It is No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works

This weekend I read a post titled “Dear Congress: It Is No Longer OK To Not Know How the Internet Works.” The author, Joshua Kopstein, is right: it’s not ok to not know about something before legislating or regulating it. The confessions by members of Congress that they are “not nerds” is frustrating at best because these guys, the guys that are regulating the Internet can’t tell a server from a waiter.

And so a post is born, sympathetically climbing the charts at Reddit and HackerNews, telling Congress to get a clue. But the problem is that that post won’t do any good. Few if any members of Congress will read it, and those that might certainly won’t read it and decide that it’s time for them to brush up on understanding how the Internet works as well as a professional that works on the Internet.

The fact is, Congress isn’t the only group in this equation that needs to get a clue. The online activists, the free culture crowd, and the pro-open and free Internet crowd needs to get a clue too. See – it’s just as important for us to understand how Congress works as it is for the Congress to understand how the Internet works. In Washington, those who “educate” Congress the best usually end up with the winning legislation.

What you have to understand is that Congress is saying that they don’t understand the Internet isn’t a failure of Congress. You may think these guys in Washington are foolish – even too stupid to really understand the “mysteries of the Internet.” but look at how our members of Congress talk about the biopharmaceutical industry: I haven’t used the word “biosimilar” once in my life, but Congress used it 70+ times in a single month.

If Congress is complaining that they don’t know about something that you care about, the right answer isn’t to tell them to go get educated. The right answer is to educate them. Congress mentioned the word “biologics” 75 times in a month because a lobbyist spent a long time doing their job: educating members of Congress on the needs of its industry.

Right now, if you want effective legislation around your industry, then you need to pay the right lobbyists, make the right campaign contributions, and write the right legislation at the right time in order to get it out of Washington. If you had to objectively pick the winning team in Washington, pick the team with deep pockets and great lobbyists, not the team with community organizers and signed petitions. It’s a gross system that needs change. It’s a cancer on our democracy.

But looking for a specific innovation to try and change the way Washington works by the time Congress votes on SOPA is about as foolish as Steve Jobs trying to diet his way out of having pancreatic cancer. With billions of dollars in the bank, and not a lot of time left, isn’t it worth going for the sure bet? Just spend the money. Then, after you’re sure you beat cancer, worry about disrupting the system that caused it.

It sucks, but those are the rules of the game. We can work to disrupt the rules of the game too: that’s what my whole career is about and what a the last third of The Information Diet is specifically about. But Washington doesn’t, and shouldn’t change quickly.

Disrupting the System

You might think that I’m some how pro-lobbyist as a result of this post so far. That’d be incorrect: I’ve spent the past decade building tools and technologies that help expose or curb the influence that lobbyists have in Washington over ordinary people. But that change doesn’t happen as quickly as much of us on the Internet have come to expect – the federal government is not attached to Moore’s Law like we are.

The other half of this is that we’ve got to make it so the side of community and organizers and signed petitions start winning over deep pockets and billions of dollars. And the way you do that is through education. We’ve got to educate activists on how to more effectively send their voice to Washington, and we’ve got to educate Washington on how to more effectively hear those voices.

Right now, Congress uses a tool called “Intranet Quorum” to effectively listen to constituents. It’s a tool built by Lockheed Martin, built in the 1990s, and built without any real social media. Here’s what it looks like (taken from here):

So ask yourself: does this look like the kind of software that you’d want to use to hear from your 717,000 constituents? Sure, it’s a CRM, and not a lot of CRM’s look “great to use” but this one, clearly belongs on Daring Fireball’s User Interface of the Week not just for its patently bad interface but also for the harm its doing to democracy.

Unfortunately, the world of government is a world of locked-up vendor contracts and displacing Intranet Quorum isn’t as simple as just building a better product, offering it at a lower cost. It’s entrenched, and there are all kinds of rules and regulations around what kinds of software members can use in an official capacity. That stuff is actually not the federal acquisition regulation, but rather regulations made up by the rules committee of the United States House of Representatives – the executive branch isn’t allowed to push regulations on the legislative branch of government like that.

In the House, internal for-fee software for a member’s correspondence must be housed by House Information Resources, and incorporate the suggested best practices put forth by the Chief Administrative Officer’s office. In the Senate, it’s the Senate Sergeant at Arms office with jurisdiction over the rules.

Both chambers have the same problem, really: in order to provide software to members offices, that software must be hosted inside the data centers of each chamber, using the hardware that each chamber provides, using only the languages and software available on that hardware.

Here’s an area for both some disruption and some lobbying. Let’s build tools that allow members of Congress to aggregate messages being sent to them, and to associate those messages with congressional districts. Let’s come up with a way for a member to see what their constituency is saying about any particular issue they’d like, and let’s provide that as an open service so that anybody can see what a particular constituency is saying. That way, when a member has a track record of voting against the desires of a substantial portion of his or her district, we’ve got a record of it, and it can get brought up in the next election.

At the same time, it’s also an area for some great lobbying. Hardware and software platforms are no more or less secure inside or outside the walls of Congress. Let’s lobby for a rules change that allows our members to use the software they want to use. It’s a non-political no-brainer that could allow members to work with businesses in their own districts rather than in Washington, and could help government attach itself to Moore’s law like the rest of us.

We also need to do similar stuff for the Executive Branch. Right now, your voice online – in the mediums you participate in, not only don’t matter: legally they can’t matter. Online identities don’t count when it comes to the official record – the information our regulators use to regulate. That’s what we’re working hard on at ExpertLabs and with ThinkUp.

Now I know there’s some cynics amongst you who say: “yes Clay, but the truth is, government doesn’t actually want to hear from us. They want to hear from rich fancy-pants lobbyists who give them campaign contributions and foie gras.”

You are correct that that’s frequently all that members of Congress listen to. But I don’t believe that’s out of ill-will or spite for the public. Rather, it’s about attention management. Lobbyists can manage the attention of our Representatives because they have the time and the resources. But I’ve never met a member of Congress who liked constantly begging for money so that they could get re-elected. Nobody wants that.

The truth is that Congress would much rather listen to its constituents than listen to lobbyists. They’d much rather be at home in their districts with their families than at fundraisers in Washington, too. But the way to fix it involves a two-fold plan: first, let’s accept that we’ll have to make our own foie gras for the time being. Then, let’s make foie gras obsolete.

The final thing we have to do, and the final space we have to educate. Educating the activists about how Congress really works needs to be a seamless part of the advocacy process. It would be trivial to make it so that every advocacy action taken online contained an educational component – so that activists weren’t blindly signing petitions and yelling at Congress but were rather coming out of an advocacy campaign being better citizens.

Here’s something that was created for Design for America – a contest from the Sunlight Foundation:

Incorporate it on every page involving an action on a bill. Make it live-update so that people can see what’s happening with their bill as it proceeds through Washintgon, DC. It’s more fair and honest than inciting people with fear and anger so that they get charged up in order to hand over their email address.

This is the kind of stuff I’m talking about when I talk about developers and the impact they can have on society – and why I close The Information Diet with a note to developers. The skill of making software isn’t just about making cool software. It’s about rewiring society. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can get on with the rewiring, and hopefully with a watchful eye, rewire it for the better.

It’s no longer acceptable for us to not take responsibility for our Congress anymore. If we want it to be better then throwing bums out, and replacing them with new bums doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. Let’s work instead to educate whomever is in Congress, and the professional class around them. Let’s do more of the stuff that works, and less of the stuff that doesn’t.

If you made it this far, it means you might like what I write about. Consider pre-ordering my book. Thanks!

Get the book