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Advances in technology are creating new ways for people to participate in the political process: we can log onto Congress members’ official websites, follow them on Twitter, and pore over donor lists and voting records. But is that information really making us better-informed citizens? We talk about the challenges and opportunities technology creates for communication between the American people and their government.
- Brad Fitch President and CEO, Congressional Management Foundation
- Josh Tauberer Founder, GovTrack; Chief Technology Officer, Popvox
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. President Obama is asking Americans to call, email and tweet their congressperson in support of his jobs bill. For citizens who support the bill, it's a rallying cry. For the congressional staffers handling the deluge, it could be a headache.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd incoming flood means the House server could crash and the Senate's switchboard operators will be going nonstop. Technology makes our lives easier, right? So why is it that something that used to be pretty straightforward, communicating with Congress, has become so complex, leaving constituents to wonder if they're really getting through and congressional staffers to figure out what's coming from a real live constituent and what's AstroTurf.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITo have this Tech Tuesday conversation about Congress online, joining us in studio is Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Brad, good to see you again.
MR. BRAD FITCHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Josh Tauberer, chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack. Josh Tauberer, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOSH TAUBERERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIBrad, I'll start with you. When the Congressional Management Foundation started, home computers were just hitting the market. What does your organization do, and how has technology changed its mission?
FITCHWell, you're right. We're almost 35 years old. And I remember when I started working as an intern on Capitol Hill. You know, my job was to take a large notebook and retype on an IBM Selectric letters and then take them to an autopen. And there was one computer in the office. And, you know, it hummed out on those little, you know, kind of weird, spooled printers. What really changed was the Internet.
FITCHObviously, it changed everything in a lot ways. And the way it changed Congress is changed the economics of sending communications to Capitol Hill. Prior to doing that, sending large numbers of communications to Capitol Hill was expensive. And there were groups that could do it, like the National Rifle Association or AARP or the NEA.
FITCHBut then, you start around the late '90s, and you started seeing software develop that associations and nonprofits and corporations could buy at a relatively inexpensive rate. And now, the National Association of Refrigerator Repairmen have an advocacy website on their website and send messages regarding refrigerator repairmen issues. I have no idea what they would be, but they do. And so that's changed.
FITCHAnd so now, you've got anywhere from 5- to 6,000 organizations who've got millions of members who are now able to send communications up to Capitol Hill. We're doing some collection for some data right now on a report we're going to release in October on how the Internet has affected the operations. But our estimate preliminary is each individual office has seen anywhere from a 300 to 600 percent increase in communications in the last decade.
FITCHWe found one Senate office that saw 1,000 percent, 10 times more communications in 2010 than they got in 2001. This is at a time when Congress has had no increase in congressional staff. The last time they got an increase was 1974. So you add all that volume and no staff increases, and it does cause some challenges.
NNAMDIYou -- we laugh at your IBM Selectric experience. But those of us who were working as reporters in the pressroom in the Capitol in those days envied you because we were still pounding away on manual typewriters...
NNAMDI...in those days. Sen. Ted Kennedy had to go outside the institution to get the first Senate website up and running. How reluctant was Congress to get online?
FITCHIt varied. Institutionally, Congress is often resistant to technology. That's just the way the institution is built. But that sort of changed in the last five to 10 years with the Internet and especially with social media. In fact, institutional offices have been a real aid to congressional offices.
FITCHWhen the freshmen arrived this year, a very large freshman class in the House of Representatives, they found waiting for them 12 templates that the House of Representatives have created. The House Information Resources went out and got designers and created 12 different options, so they could go live very quickly.
FITCHSo the institutional offices, such as a chief administrative office around the House side and the Senate CIO on the Senate side, have no longer obstacles to communications and to helping offices. There are now, really, assistance and aids in the process. What is holding Congress back is you do have a cadre of sort of -- we'll just call them luddites...
FITCH...who just are really resisting the idea, and it's about -- we estimate about one in six congressional offices are really resisting the idea of using technology. And it's too bad because they would be more efficient. They would be more effective. They would be more transparent. Their constituents would like them better, and their staff would get work done better.
FITCHCall me crazy, but I think this computer thing is really a good thing. And I think it might help Congress be a little more effective of what they do.
NNAMDIJosh Tauberer, when you started GovTrack, what information coming out of Congress was available online? And what did you do with that information that was different?
TAUBERERSo when I started about 10 years ago working on this site, there was actually a lot of information coming out of Congress. The Library of Congress has a website called THOMAS, which has the status of all bills before Congress, and you could find voting records.
TAUBERERAnd the problem, really, was that the information was not put together in a way that was really understandable for citizens to use for them to be able to track what was happening in Congress on an ongoing basis. And the information was not cross-referenced in a useful way, in a -- between status of legislation and how your member of Congress actually voted on it.
NNAMDIWell, why did someone who, it is my understanding, is not very interested in politics start a website that has been called schoolhouse rock on steroids?
TAUBERERI think I've been very interested in how data and technology can improve our civic lives. So I'm not interested in the sort of P.R. back and forth -- the usual sort of politics, right? But I am interested in civics. And I'm interested in how people figure out what information to use when they have to vote for a member of Congress, how they participate in government, what are the different ways to participate, and how people learn about it.
NNAMDII suspect you are aware most of the public is on that issue, as a matter fact. And you can join this conversation on Congress online by calling us at 800-433-8850. Do you use technology to seek out government information or records? What website or tools do you use? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there.
NNAMDIIf you're on Twitter, you can join in the conversation by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag, or simply send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Josh Tauberer, chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack, and Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
NNAMDIJosh, you've talked to congressional staffers about the GovTrack and how it can be helpful for them. In turn, you learn a lot about their workload. What was the thing that surprised you most about their needs?
TAUBERERWell, one of the things that I learned a while back, which was at a conference put together by the Congressional Management Foundation, was that the folks on the outside sending the messages in and the folks on the inside of Congress processing the messages didn't understand how the other half was operating. And I was really -- this conference was in...
TAUBERER...2007, and it was really a real eye-opener to see that there's this enormous disconnect, right? And the disconnect highlights an opportunity. So a lot of people talk about how Congress is broken, and that's just too easy. Broken doesn't really tell you how to address a solution.
TAUBERERAnd so, really, seeing what the differences were between the folks on the outside sending hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of messages in and on the inside having to process all of that mail and not really knowing what the best technology was to do it.
NNAMDIPeople on the inside were clearly suffering from information overload.
NNAMDIIs that still the case, Brad?
FITCHThey're getting better at it. The last four or five years, they've gotten better at synthesizing information and understanding and getting good reports. And, you know, one of the myths that exists out there, that also came out at this conference, is that Congress wants to listen. I mean, that's their job, and they understand it. And they really are trying to listen as well as they can.
FITCHWe did a survey of congressional staff last year and asked this question: If your member of Congress hasn't already come to a firm decision on the issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies have on his or her decision-making? And we found that 97 percent of the respondents of congressional staff said individualized communications would have some or a lot of influence.
FITCHAnd that's the real key, is that -- are the constituents taking the time to be authentic instead of just doing one-click advocacy and saying, oh, yeah, I believe in that? Which is okay and does have some influence, but what we found is staff and members are trying to do two things when they get the communication in the door. They're trying to administer it, meaning move it from point A to point B and respond back as quickly as possible.
FITCHAnd, second, they're trying to integrate that data into the lawmakers' decision-making process. They really do value that information because it's -- again, if it's genuine and it's talking about especially a constituent who is going to be affected by it a particular policy, the staffer wants the member of Congress to know that 'cause the member wants to know that.
NNAMDIAnd those lessons that you just indicated, learned from Hill staffers, are being put into practice. In your latest venture, Josh, Popvox, what groups does that site serve, and how does it work?
TAUBERERWe're looking to address the needs of three different groups, so citizens, organizations that advocate on issues and congressional staff. And I want to go back and say that my two partners on Popvox, one is a former staffer for a congressman, and the other is a former lobbyist. So we're bringing the expertise and what they've learned doing advocacy on both sides of that onto this issue.
TAUBERERSo, for the three groups, we're really trying to figure out what the different needs are for those groups and how to satisfy them. So on the congressional staff side, we learned that or -- one of my partners, Marci Harris, learned by doing it because she was in Congress, that messages going in are most effective when they mention a bill number -- they say support or oppose clearly. They're about personal story.
TAUBERERSo we are -- so that's one need, right? And the other need is citizens want to know how to actually be an effective advocate. And so the tool puts that together by making sure that you can go to Popvox. You find a bill that you are interested in, and then you can write a letter to Congress on that bill. And we tell you, here's what you need to make sure you include in your letter. And we start you off with some suggested text.
NNAMDII went to the website today and immediately sent it to several people who I know have an interest in trying to influence their members of Congress in one way or another. You might, too. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. If you're on Twitter, join the conversation by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag. Have you contacted your congressperson or another elected representative? What is your preferred mode of communication?
NNAMDIAnd have you received a response to your correspondence with a government office? Were you satisfied with it? Tell us why, or why not? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Brad, you've already pointed out that the amount of correspondence the average congressional office receives has grown as much as 600 percent during the course of the past decade. What tech tools do staffers use to manage that influx?
FITCHWell, all staffers in all offices have the garden-variety CRM, customer relations management, system that keeps a database of constituents that contact them. Increasingly, what's fascinating in some -- a recent study we just released on social media called "Hashtag Social Congress" shows that they're also using social media increasingly to understand the views of constituents.
FITCHCiting the same survey, I said before of congressional staff, we asked them, how important are the following for understanding constituent views and opinions? And we found 54 percent of the staff said Facebook is somewhat or very important for understanding views and opinions. And when we drilled down and interviewed people, what we're finding is it's sort of like looking at a mosaic of information that they're trying to make sense of.
FITCHAnd they -- Facebook is now part of that mosaic, and so is Twitter and YouTube to some extent, where they're gathering information. And, remember, if it's coming in social media, it's authentic. There's somebody behind that. You really can't fake a YouTube video, although I'm sure someone will try someday.
FITCHBut the idea here is that members of Congress are using these new technology tools aggressively. When we do interviews with members of Congress -- and we've done quite a few in the last six months when working with their offices -- we are amazed at their interest in social media. They are really interested in how this is happening and what they can do to use it, both to communicate information out to constituents but also to collect constituent views and opinions.
NNAMDIAnother way of shaking hands with your constituents. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation about accessing Congress online and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about accessing Congress online with Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and Josh Tauberer, Chief Technology Officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8500. Got questions about how GovTrack or Popvox work? Josh has answers. 800-433-8850. Or if you're on Twitter, you can simply use the Tech Tuesday hash tag.
NNAMDIWe'll go to the phones, starting with Mike in Columbia, Md. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just -- whenever I get the strong urge to contact my congressman, I always revert to pen and paper, thinking that they're less likely to ignore that message. Is that true in today's age of technology? Or do they really pay attention to emails?
FITCHWell, actually, the vehicle of communication that's used is less important than the fact that it's been individualized. And so the fact that this caller is writing a letter, it's definitely going to get noticed, and it does make a difference. There is a little bit slight differential that paper mail is a little bit more influential than email.
FITCHBut we're talking a differential like 1 or 2 percent. What makes the difference is, has an authentic real constituent taken the time to say this is how this affects me, as Josh mentioned, how the legislation will affect the district or state, how it'll affect their family, things like that. That's what they're looking for, something that says this is a real person, and I care about this issue.
NNAMDIAny other tips for listeners who may be discouraged at the prospect of not being heard if they write their member of Congress?
FITCHOn the flipside, for a letter, it takes time for a letter to get through to Congress, right? And an electronic message is going to go in very, very quickly. So I think that Congress is still scanning all of their mail for -- passing it through radiation detectors and things like that. And that puts in a two-week delay or something along those lines.
NNAMDIMike, thank you so much for your call.
NNAMDIOn to Mike in Alexandria, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEThanks for taking my call. I'm a big fan of Twitter. I tweet to Congress, to various members of Congress all the time, and I never get a response. But I feel like it's louder than just writing a letter because I know that other people are seeing it, and that makes me feel more important, sort of like calling "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and asking your congressman directly on the air.
NNAMDIWell, let's imagine Brad Fitch is your congressman, for the purpose of this discussion. You will get a response.
NNAMDISend in tweets?
FITCHYes. It's really interesting. Our research shows is that what members are using this social media for, like Twitter and Facebook, are to get opinions of constituents, but on topics that the member of Congress has already started. So a member is going to do a speech or hearing on one topic on Monday. And they put that up on YouTube, and then they link it on Facebook.
FITCHAnd then they maybe tweet about it, and then they look and see what people think about that topic. And so if you're trying to influence a member of Congress using social media, it's hard to get the conversation started. But if they're already talking about the debt ceiling or they're already talking about the American Jobs Act or something like that, they're going to gather that information, and they are passing that information.
FITCHThe staff are passing that information onto the member. The other scary thing for staff is members are logging on themselves. We've lost this control that members -- that staffers always had. I mean, when I worked in Capitol Hill, there's no way my bosses could figure out how to send an email or a press release to reporters.
FITCHAnd now, you've got people thumbing through their own tweets, and it's scaring the heck out of these staffers because they've lost control of the message. And, you know, 99 percent of the time, it's fine. But sometimes, you know, a chief of staff or press secretary might find out the position of a member of Congress after a constituent has already found out in a Twitter feed.
NNAMDIThe filter, in some cases, is gone. Mike, thank you so much for your call.
NNAMDIJosh, has the technology you use to run your websites changed much over the past decade? Or are people just getting smarter about how they use it?
TAUBERERWell, both are true. For sure, people are more informed about what's happening in Congress now. I can see that in the last 10 years or so, and people know what to search for better. The technology -- while the technology of building websites has changed, there are new tools that make it easier and faster to build things.
TAUBERERAnd Google maps, for instance, having an API starting around 2004 or '05 was useful for building maps of congressional districts, so that you can zoom in to a street level and see are you on that side or the other side of the district boundary. And we're always building new stuff, right? So everything is based on the previous.
NNAMDIIf you would like to join this conversation, 800-433-8850. If you've worked as a congressional staff or a transparency advocate, we'd like to hear how you've managed the flow of information coming and going, 800-433-8850. Or you can simply join the conversation on Twitter by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag. Here is Christina in Washington, D.C. Hi, Christina.
CHRISTINAHi. So first of all, I'd like to thank the Congressional Management Foundation for their work. I don't think that many people in the country realize the kind of issues that Congress is facing and their staff are facing, so thank you to you.
CHRISTINAAnd I just wanted to say, I guess, my personal story as a constituent was using the web forum on Del. Norton's Web page and writing about a specific bill and asking her to, you know, co-sponsor similar legislation in the House and not getting a response. And I provided my address, and I don't know -- you know, someday I will get a response or not.
CHRISTINABut using the forum that -- the delegate have provided was apparently not enough to get a relatively prompt response. And I was talking about something specific.
CHRISTINAAnd, for the record, I was urging her to support us (word?), you know, similar legislation in the House, to give -- to ensure that companies allow people to opt out for privacy, which I don't know if can -- I mean, I feel personally overwhelmed by, you know, the technology explosion and that I can't keep a track of how companies are using my information. So that seems like -- and to give FTC enforcement authority.
NNAMDIWell, you know, during the course of the next hour, we'll be talking about something called the big data report, about not only how companies are collecting and using information, but how they might be using it in the future, so you might want to listen in for that. At the same time, Christina, I'm going to put you on hold because I'd like to juxtapose your call with Jenny in Northwest D.C. before I ask our panelists to respond.
NNAMDIJenny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNYThank you, Kojo. Yes, I'm a resident of D.C. And I wonder if these people have any recommendations for a tech fix to the following problem. When I enter my address, everybody knows that I don't have a voting member of Congress, so I have no influence. What do you suggest I do?
NNAMDIAnd, of course, Christina's question has to do with how that non-voting representative of Congress has not responded to her question, so I'll start with you, Brad Fitch.
FITCHWell, I always hesitate on this one 'cause, as a former District resident, I felt, too, the pain of having non-representation. And it's always a tough answer. I mean, the one point that I often make is debt voting on the floor at the House of Representatives is but one role that a representative or delegate does and that most of the work gets done in the committee and co-sponsorships and to working with colleagues. I'm not trying to diminish that final vote...
NNAMDIAnd the D.C. delegate does vote in committee.
FITCHYeah, and votes in committee. So I think that's -- you know, as a student of Congress, I think we all know that's where most of it happens. So what you want to do is you want to keep an eye on not just the floor activity of what's going on in Congress, but the committee activity and seeing -- look for those opportunities when the delegate might be involved because of the committee that she serves on and identify an issue or something that might be coming up in the committee and say, please, get involved in this.
NNAMDIWell, Jenny, thank you very much for your call. On to now to Christina's issue and that is she says she signed -- she just filled in a form that the delegate herself put out. What is the incidence of people doing that kind of thing and not getting any response from the member of Congress?
FITCHWell, here's what's happened in the last 10 years. The gulf between the most sophisticated member of Congress on technology and the least sophisticated has grown exponentially because you got all these technologies. We have a member of Congress, Justin Amash, from -- freshman congressman from Michigan, who posts on his Facebook page a explanation for every vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.
FITCHHe got elected in his primary in large part, from what I understand and from reading, based on this social media strategy. So you got members like that. Our research tends to shows that members, the longer they have been here, the safer that their district, they're less likely to use technology effectively, in part, because, perhaps, they have less political incentive to do so.
FITCHSo that is a challenge, is that you have this big gulf of members that are, you know, very sophisticated and then some that are not.
NNAMDIBut, Josh, how would Popvox be able to help somebody like Christine?
TAUBERERRight. My answer to both of those questions is that making your letter public adds a whole -- another layer to what your advocacy does. It's sort of the amplification part of what Popvox is about. So if you post -- if you read a letter on Popvox, your letter gets added to our bill report, and you can see what other people are saying.
TAUBERERSo if you don't think that your member of Congress is actually, well -- or the staff for your member of Congress has actually read the letter, then at least the other people coming to look at your letter might see it and benefit from that. And so we're hoping that the media will look at it. And we know that people on our side are looking at other people's comments 'cause we get feedback from those people, you know, this comment was a really good comment, or that comment wasn't such a good comment.
NNAMDIChristina, it would appear that you do have options.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on to Kevin in Washington, D.C. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEVINHi. Thank you. My question is somewhat related. I know this comes up every time you have a show on this topic. But, as a D.C. resident, it's always infuriating. But what I'm specifically interested in is the work in committees or the work not as a representative of a district but, say, as speaker of the House or majority leader.
KEVINIs it possible to begin some initiative that the work a Congress person does in committee should be receptive to correspondence from people nationwide, because it's no longer work that's directly representative of that particular district, but now, you know, the people on the super committee, for example, or all of the Congress people on the D.C. Appropriations Committee.
KEVINI mean, they should all be, you know, on an energy committee if that particular topic...
NNAMDIBrad Fitch, what our caller is saying is that all politics is not necessarily local.
FITCHWell, regrettably, Kevin, your complaint is with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Madison, who set up a representative democracy. And the way they set up the constitutional system is you go through your representative. And, in fact, the rules of the House are rather explicit in that members are not even allowed to spend money on non-constituents in a variety of different ways. So you really have to try to motivate your...
NNAMDISpecifically, they're not allowed to spend money communicating with non-constituents.
FITCHThat's right, yeah, especially proactively. That's definitely against the rules. So that is a bit of a challenge. Having said that, there are some interesting examples of committees, rather progressive committees in the Congress that are starting to collect information. Some years ago, one of the -- I think it was the minority side of the energy -- or Education and Workforce Committee was looking into issues dealing with flight attendants.
FITCHAnd they asked for people to send in comments to their website, and they expected about 1,000 comments most on this research that they were doing. They got 20,000 people commenting. So we are seeing, increasingly, committees open up their websites. We're also seeing the committee websites get a lot better. So if you are interested in that committee activity, often, just going to the committee website, you'll see a schedule of upcoming hearings.
FITCHYou'll probably even see a witness list that'll be coming up, so you'll be able to educate yourself on those topics. They may be arcane, but they affect somebody. And they do -- again, are the most the important places on where legislation is effective.
NNAMDIAnd, Josh Tauberer, it seems to me, again, that's where Popvox can come in because instead of that person singing solo, they'll be suddenly a part of a choir.
TAUBERERAbsolutely. We're also thinking that, especially for the super committee now, those members are going to have to get their plan approved by the rest of Congress. And we're expecting that they're going to want to know what the rest of the nation thinks, but they don't have the tools to process that information now. And they're already overloaded, right? So they need better tools before they can start accepting 10 times, 100 times more mail volume.
TAUBERERSo on Popvox, if you post your comment there, it will go to a member of Congress. But other congressional offices that are looking to research that issue might look in other districts, and part of that is like competitive research.
NNAMDIJosh Tauberer is the chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack. He joins us in studio for this conversation about accessing Congress online with Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Kevin, thank you for your call. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you contacted your Congress person or another elective representative?
NNAMDIHave you received a response to your correspondence? Were you satisfied with it? Tell us why or why not, 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation on Twitter by using the TechTuesday hashtag, or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Brad, transparency, tools, and services are the key elements that you look for when you evaluate House and Senate websites.
NNAMDIWhat's the Golden Mouse, and why is it so coveted among members of Congress?
FITCHThe Congressional Gold Mouse Award was created by the Congressional Management Foundation in 2001 when we wanted to identify, frankly, in the Senate, for members of Congress to build better websites. There's a lot of critics of Congress, and my organization is really built -- and reputation as not being one of them. We think we can get more motivation and more progress with Congress by, frankly, pointing out best practices.
FITCHSo we started doing a best practices report in 2002, was our first report, and the results were astounding. We issued the first Gold Mouse Awards, and then we worked with about 200 different offices and showed them this is how you build a website because, back then, it was still a little new to members of Congress.
FITCHAnd in our first evaluation in 2002, 10 percent of congressional offices got an A or B. In our next evaluation 12 months later, 50 percent got an A or B. We're going to be coming out with our next Gold Mouse Award announcement at the end of -- on Oct. 24 with our report on best practices, and then issuing the awards, kind of like the Academy Awards for congressional websites on Nov. 16 at 101 Constitution Ave.
FITCHAnd if people are more interested to see the best websites, they can come to our website at congressfoundation.org and take a look at some of the best websites. And you can actually look at the one level above Gold Mouse since last year, we issued the first Platinum Mouse Awards, which is a one step up, which was won by Congressman Steve Israel of New York and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
FITCHAnd they really are kind of playing above the rim, so there's a real competition this year of who's going to be the platinum winners. I've actually just got a sneak preview, and we're going to have some really interesting news at the end of the month.
NNAMDIThis is like the reverse of the late Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award...
NNAMDI...which used to go to the worst person on the Hill, in terms of wasting the public's money, correct?
FITCHCorrect. I mean, we're trying to point out best practices. And you pointed out transparency, and, you know, one of the things that we have emphasized and tried to tell and teach congressional offices is that this isn't about promoting the member. This is about identifying what the constituent wants. I actually saw a focus group of constituents when we were doing our initial research here, and they were describing what they wanted in a website.
FITCHAnd they were looking for real garden-variety. How does a bill become a law? What is it that I can do to get involved? One of the best things we saw -- I really love this. There was a Colorado senator this year who, on his website, has a blurb next to every issue that says, what I'm doing about it. And I think that's a level of accountability that is just wonderful.
FITCHAnd technology is allowing that accountability to be, you know, connecting him to his constituents.
NNAMDIAs technology has evolved, so have our expectations. What cultural shifts have you noticed in each of your communities as changes to the way we communicate have taken shape? First you, Josh.
TAUBERERWell, one thing that's come up is that people are more attuned to what is the title of a bill, for instance. People expect that or -- not understanding that the titles of bills come from sponsors. They expect that titles will be named in a kind of neutral, realistic way, right? So I think people are -- their expectations are getting more detailed.
TAUBERERThey want to see the right sort of information. People are aware more that a lot of activity happens in congressional committees, and that's one of the real sore spots for Congress where committees are still, from the perspective of transparency and data, quite shadowy. They don't publish their voting records in a way that makes it easy for sites like mine to republish, that people can search it.
TAUBERERSo people are getting much more savvy about where they should be looking for, what kind of information they should be able to find.
NNAMDIAnd as the Popvox site says today that if you're looking for the president's jobs bill, it's not a jobs bill yet. It has to be introduced by somebody before it's a bill, but you can still offer your opinion anyway, Brad.
FITCHI think the other thing that's happening, that we're seeing in the marketplace, is that they -- the citizens are using the new tools the way they are intended. They're using social media as a way to authentically communicate to members. We saw a great example last year when Lady Gaga was urging college students to contact members of Congress on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
FITCHA couple of University of Colorado students actually posted a video to their senator, Michael Bennet, and saying -- and basically saying, look, kids, look how easy it is to do. And they actually did the video, showing them calling their member of Congress. Within 17 hours, Sen. Bennet had posted a reply. And so you actually had that wonderful dialogue happening. So, I think, increasingly, people are recognizing that these new tools are a way.
FITCHThe other thing that's happened is the significant increase in volume we referenced is also demonstrated in a statistic that we collected in 2007 of a survey of citizens, a public survey of citizens. And we asked them if they had contacted their member of Congress within the last five years, and 44 percent of adult Americans had contacted Congress. We saw thousands of people coming out of town hall meetings in 2009.
FITCHYou may not have liked a lot of the attitude and a lot of the ranker, but they were involved. And so what we're tracking is we're definitely seeing an increased level of interest in what's going on in Congress. And they're using technology in a variety of ways to feed that interest.
NNAMDIBrad Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. He joins us in studio with Josh Tauberer, chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack. We're going to be taking a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call.
NNAMDIIf the lines are busy, then you can simply join the conversation on Twitter by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag, sending us an email to email@example.com or going to our website, kojoshow.org, making a comment or asking a question there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. Accessing Congress online is the subject of our conversation. And we're having it with Josh Tauberer, chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack, and Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Steven in Dupont Circle couldn't stay on the line, but he makes the point that email and such are fine.
NNAMDIBut the most effective way to get attention is to call your representative and make an appointment to meet with them in person. How often is that successful, Brad Fitch?
FITCHVery successful. In fact, the survey I mentioned earlier about what would influence an undecided member of Congress, something like 98 percent of the staffers who responded to the survey said an in-person visit from a constituent would have some or a lot of influence. Again, it's one of those myths out there that, A, they're an inaccessible and, B, that their voice doesn't matter. It's easier to do it in the district office.
FITCHAnd the new House schedule, which has been put together by the leadership this year, has, now, a total of 12 recesses as opposed to five last year. So there's a lot more opportunity for those folks who do have members of Congress that are coming back to their district more frequently to call up and set up a meeting, especially if you can do it with a group of people that have a similar interest. And one-on-ones are great. Town hall meetings are great.
FITCHBut if you've got a community or if you've got an association that you belong to or a nonprofit where you know you have similar supporters, you know, nothing says listen to me like a small mob. And so calling in with a group of people could be very helpful.
TAUBERERAnd don't forget to write about it also and make sure that you tell other people that this is something that you can do also.
NNAMDIOn to Jim in Herndon, Va. Jim, your turn on a related issue.
JIMYes, Kojo. Hi. I'm wondering if, regardless of your political affiliation, is it ever worth contacting the office of the vice president or the office of the president about an issue?
FITCHWell, I actually got a briefing from the office of the president, Presidential Correspondence. And, again, whether you're pro or con, you know, D or R, you know, donkey or elephant, they have an impressive operation. They have made a significant investment in trying to call and respond to and collect constituent views. As we all know it's rather well-known the president gets 10 letters a day to read and review.
FITCHAnd they -- this office calls through all of that information, but the technology that they have integrated into their operation is successful. Now, I have not had a back-end tour, and so I don't know what happens to the message once it goes in. But I can just simply say that the effort in the system that's been set up is very impressive. I would add one other interesting anecdote.
FITCHUnlike the United States Congress, the office of the president uses volunteers to help respond to mail, which is a very interesting, you know, way of, you know, managing the workflow.
NNAMDIWhich might be a way of helping yourself on this issue, Jim. You might want to volunteer. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Brian, who says, "A caller said he writes letters and asked if that is the best way to reach his representatives. You said that letters provide the most effective impact but introduce two-week delays.
NNAMDI"I cannot believe that you did not then mention faxes. Faxes are letters that provide the impact of letters but avoid the enormous delay of mailed letters. I don't know."
TAUBERERFaxes also have a tendency to not be read, and it's not the same in all offices. It's not across the board. But they don't have fax machines anymore. It's not like your piece of paper comes out on the other end. It basically goes into an inbox. And because it's harder for them to get into their constituent management system where they can enter your name and address, it's probably less likely to actually be processed.
TAUBERERAnd staff hate them. They just -- I mean, they use the word hate. It's not even light. It's as if -- it's -- 'cause it's -- just think about what you're doing. You're taking the electronic communication, turning into a piece of paper that then they have to re-key into their system. They're the most likely to be thrashed. They're the most likely to be ignored. It's -- we would strongly urge you, listeners, do not send faxes to Capitol Hill. Send email or letters.
NNAMDII am not particularly fond of faxes either. Brad, most members of Congress and their staffers feel the benefits of using social media outweigh the risks, but there are real risks. Are members and their staffs advised on avoiding the pitfall?
FITCHYes, they are. And, basically, they're given the same rules that they have with other communications, where they can't get overly political in their communications, that they have to be responsive to some degree to constituents. And there is the risk when you start a dialogue on your Facebook page that somebody is going to say something that doesn't, frankly, agree with the member of Congress.
FITCHWhat's fascinating is psychological research shows is that public officials or leaders who actually are open to a dialogue are trusted more than people who don't. And so if you actually allow this dialogue to occur, it's going to make you look transparent. It's going to make you look like you can take a hereto and that you want the dialogue and that you're willing to listen to people from the other side.
FITCHAnd, increasingly, I think you don't have to be a rocket scientist or a political scientist to know that that's what a lot of Americans are looking for. They're looking for people who have an open mind, who are willing to compromise, who are willing to listen to somebody who may have a view that's different than theirs and try to integrate that thinking or at least be responsive to that thinking in some meaningful way.
NNAMDIBut then there's this. An angry letter you mailed to your Congress person is not likely to resurface, but a signature on an online petition could come back to haunt you if, say, a prospective boss Googles you. Are constituents at all concerned about moving their correspondence with Congress online? Do you hear of such concerns at all, Josh?
TAUBERERNot for electronics in general. So you can always go, if you have a personal story to tell, to your member's website and send it there directly. Of course, since my site is Popvox, I don't want you to really do that.
TAUBERERBut you can do that. And they take the security and privacy of those measures very seriously. On Popvox, we're focusing on public comments because we think comments that are public are going to have a greater impact. That's not always appropriate for what you want to say. And you have to choose which way you want to go.
NNAMDIConstituents concerned about moving their correspondence with Congress online?
FITCHHaving been working on Capitol Hill for many years, reading a lot of letters, yeah, there was a lot of things that I read that I wouldn't want publicly made known from some of those folks. And I think, yeah, there should be some level -- especially if you're providing personal information related to a problem with a federal agency. So, yeah, there should be some degree of concern.
FITCHOr in the social media realm as well, when you articulate a view in social media, I used to tell my members of Congress that I work for -- you know, when you talk to reporters, something like this -- and it's the same thing now -- it's as if you are speaking to an audience at RFK Stadium. Every word is appearing on the big megatron jumbo screen. It is then taken from the jumbo screen, taken outside and chiseled into cement for all of time.
FITCHI'm going to try to tell my children this when they start going online because that's exactly what's happening with the Internet. It has the biggest memory of any elephant in the world.
NNAMDIHere is David in Oakton, Va., with a concern along those lines. David, your turn.
DAVIDYes, Kojo, enjoying your show. I was wondering, I've contacted both senators and House representatives in the past. And I was just curious. On the websites, I'm noticing that they're asking information about the constituent, such as contact information, et cetera. And some of that makes perfect sense. But I'm just wondering, are there any rules or regulations with regards to sharing that information by the representative?
DAVIDIs there a possibility that a representative could then give that information to a particular pact group that he's affiliated with?
FITCHYes. There are actually rules. And there are laws on it, actually, and they cannot. That information becomes, in essence, the property of the congressional office, and they can do with it what they will, in some regards, with regards to responding to communication. But there can be absolutely no transfer of information from a campaign to a congressional office or vice versa.
FITCHThis has actually created a really interesting problem for this freshman class, and what we're seeing is a number of freshman use social media in their campaigns to get elected. And so they get their list of followers, 10-, 23,000. Okay. Well, now, they're working in Congress. They can't port that data from the campaign to the office 'cause that would be illegal. They still want to communicate with them their official activities.
FITCHBut you can't communicate official activities through your campaign websites. So the technology is kind of outstretched a little bit of the practicalities. And the House, I know, is -- and Senate are trying to figure out how to manage that because there is this huge, huge firewall between the two operations of the campaign operations and a legitimate congressional House operation or Senate operation in the official sense.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Frank in Berkeley Spring, W.Va. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKKojo in 2012. That's what I wanted to start with.
NNAMDIStart the petition online. Go ahead, please.
FRANKMy wife and I, we email, we snail mail, we telephone, and we also use Web servers to comment regularly to our representative. And I'm always frustrated by the bland response. We get a response, you know, bill such and such, and I don't sit on that committee. But if it comes to the floor, I'll keep your views in mind. So I'm wondering, they must be counting pro and con. If I say a certain bill, certainly, somebody is marking me as yes or a no.
FRANKAnd my concern is, occasionally -- Congressman Manchin does this, actually, and Rockefeller. And I don't know whether it's because Manchin is a little new to this, but he'll actually say his opinion. And he indicates exactly the opposite of what I wrote. So, just yesterday, I got a letter back that said, like you, many West Virginians are concerned that the DREAM Act will cause illegal immigration.
FRANKThat's exactly the opposite of what I wrote. Now, if I write him again, it's like -- I mean, am I just sending my soup back to the kitchen, saying it's too cold, and every time it just comes back colder? You know, are they -- how do I know they're hearing me?
TAUBERERYeah, this is an issue that we've seen, and it happens. And you have to keep in mind that the congressional office received your message and 100 to thousands of messages on the same day. Your senator may represent, if you lived in California, up to, I think, 50 million people, the population of California. They have a lot of information coming and going, right?
TAUBERERAnd they are human beings that are classifying these messages into different categories so that they don't have to respond to each one individually, which would be impossible, right, without a staff, if, you know, Congress could hire 100 more people per office, but -- so they have to group things together. They have to respond in bulk in order to get back to you at all, and sometimes it falls to the cracks.
TAUBERERBut what we've seen is that, by and large, your view is being tallied and in the right category. But I -- you know, it's rare, but it does happen that things get in the wrong file.
NNAMDICare to add to that, Brad?
FITCHYeah, we actually are trying to solve the problem, in some respects, to stop getting mischaracterized. The Congressional Management Foundation has been working on a project with both the senders of the communication, and Josh has already started to lend his support to this effort with Popvox and some of the other vendors who send communications to Capitol Hill, as well as the House and Senate.
FITCHAnd we hope to create a pilot program that'll, frankly, fix some of the technological glitches. A former CMF staffer, now consultant, Tim Hysom, has been leading this effort and done a great job over the last two, three years and got us to a very close point where we're going to be addressing some of the technological glitches that do occur, that lead to communications being mislabeled.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Frank. Here is Christy in Manassas, Va. Christy, your turn.
CHRISTYHi, Kojo. Actually, I had the exact same point of the caller that just called. I write, and I -- and this has happened more than once, where I asked a senator, a representative, please oppose bill X, Y, Z, and I get a response that says, thank you for joining me to support bill X, Y, Z. So, unlike what your guest just said, I think this happens more than they realize.
CHRISTYAnd it's very frustrating for someone who's taken the time to write in, and then they get a response exactly the opposite of what they wrote to ask the representative to support.
NNAMDIIs there any -- is there a technological fix for that?
TAUBERERWell, that's what Brad was getting into and what we're working on. So when we send your message -- and we know -- you know, I sometimes read the messages that are coming into Popvox, and I start to cry a little bit sometimes because they can be really, you know, heartfelt. And you can tell people spend a lot of time on it. It's really a shame that -- when things don't get counted right.
TAUBERERSo what we do when we send messages into Congress, we do it electronically. And we send your message, and we send your contact information. Some members of Congress have systems set up so that we can also identify what bill is being addressed in the message and what side you're on. And where that's possible, we submit that information. And, hopefully, those offices are making use of it, right?
TAUBERERSo it's not that they have to go read your message. This helps them tally things and put things into the right bins automatically, and that's really helpful. And, on the other hand, does that mean they're reading your message less? I'm not really sure, but I think it's super important that they at least get it tallied in the right spot in the fastest way possible.
NNAMDIChristy, thank you for your call. We only have about 30 seconds left, Brad Fitch, but we got this email from Jonathan. "Astroturfing is much more sophisticated than when it was first employed in 1995. YouTube is already overrun with successful examples. My question is, how will politicians be able to tell the difference, moreover, how will the public?"
FITCHWell, I think that this -- I bristle a little bit, this term Astroturf because we've been studying this issue for about eight or nine years. And we, at Congressional Management Foundation, have found little or no examples of fake mass communications going in the door. In all cases, there's a constituent who has taken an action and done something.
FITCHIt may be just one click, but at least they've been involved in that. So we're not seeing a lot of that happening out there.
NNAMDIBrad Fitch is the president and the CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Brad, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJosh Tauberer is the chief technology officer with Popvox and the founder of GovTrack. Josh, thank you for joining us.
TAUBERERThanks very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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