Lawmakers want to make it easier for constituents to track requests online
If you have ever requested a tour of Congress or that a flag be flown over the Capitol and not heard back for months, you’re likely not alone.
According to former House aide Taylor Swift, Congress has long lacked a systematic way of updating members of the public about their requests, often frustrating voters.
“There has not been a transparent digital process for constituents to know where their request is in the request portal,” said Swift, a policy adviser for the left-leaning advocacy group Demand Progress who worked for the House Democratic Caucus.
That’s one of the slate of hurdles lawmakers on the panel spearheading efforts to modernize Congress are hoping to topple.
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Thursday approved its latest batch of recommendations, focusing on constituent engagement. Among them, it called for creating a “more efficient process for tracking and managing constituent flag requests,” which lawmakers can grant individuals to commemorate events, holidays or birthdays. The result, Swift said, could look familiar to consumers.
“Basically, the idea is to create something similar to a Domino's or Pizza Hut pizza tracker so that a constituent can go online or call the office and know exactly where that flag is in the delivery process,” said Swift, who worked with the panel as an aide.
It’s one of nearly 200 bipartisan recommendations issued by the committee so far that, if implemented, could help constituents feel heard by lawmakers and boost transparency in government, according to Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), who chairs the panel.
“Some of the recommendations we passed today were in the service of providing more information to our constituents, and some of them were about … enabling our constituents to provide more information to us,” he told me.
But the fact that Congress is playing catch-up with what one publication described in 2008 as a “revolutionary technology” for the food-service industry is telling.
“The flag issue is a microcosm for how Congress for the past several decades has been stuck in the 20th century, even though we are well into 21st century technology,” Swift said.
Many of those technological shortcomings were laid bare at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when lawmakers and staff had to navigate operating fully remote for extended periods. But the issue wasn’t new to lawmakers in Washington.
To that end, the House in 2019 set up the modernization committee with the express mandate of getting Congress up to speed technically on an array of fronts, from streamlining administrative processes, to improving human resource functions for staff, to boosting public transparency.
Some of the panel’s recent recommendations have been more forward-looking, including making sure that tools developed on Capitol Hill are open-source by default.
Doing so could help local, state and foreign governments build off tools created in Congress and vice versa, said a senior committee aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The panel also proposed developing a system to make it easier for offices to share anonymized data about issues constituents are dealing with. That could make Congress more responsive to their needs, Kilmer said. “I think that's a big deal because our constituents depend on the federal government working for them,” he said.
It remains an open question how many of the panel’s recommendations, which are nonbinding, will be picked up, or how long that could take.
According to the panel’s own tracker, only 37 of its 195 recommendations have been fully implemented to date, while another 87 have been partially implemented.
“It's going to be a decade down the road until we can really take stock and see the success of this work just because of the nature of the recommendations they're making,” Swift said.
“I think the institution's getting better, and a lot of the recommendations that we have made have been in the service of trying to make things better,” Kilmer said.
After operating for four years, the select committee will sunset this Congress. That means that lawmakers will need to figure out who, if anyone, will pick up the baton.
The senior committee aide said the panel is likely to recommend before the end of the year that the House set up a permanent subcommittee tasked with leading modernization efforts, possibly to be augmented by a separate select panel on a periodic basis.
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