The average age of a freshman member of the House of Representatives is mid-40s, roughly 10 years younger than the rest of the chamber. This increasingly Generation-X People’s House will surely work differently than in previous Congresses, especially when it comes to digital communications.
Gen-Xers, born in the mid-1960s to early 1980s, grew up with video games, saw the birth of personal computers and were the first to embrace social media. In politics, Xers pioneered digital and social-media election campaigns and continue to find ways to connect with constituents through the Internet.
As a result, voters hold greater influence in Washington because their digital voices are being heard more often and more loudly than ever. What’s more, lawmakers who built their Instagram and Facebook followings now have ready-made focus groups to test constituents’ views on a wide range of issues.
The challenge for lawmakers is to translate their growing digital proficiency into effective governance. One impediment is the congressional budget. Constituent communication has continued to grow, but staff resources have not. Lawmakers too often rely on legacy systems meant to deal with postal mail to manage the millions of digital messages they receive each year. The result is that many constituents are neglected because lawmakers’ offices don’t have the time to reach out to them.
Some upgrades have occurred, and they help a lot. Documents that used to be found only in print are online and are now searchable. Public comments on pending regulations are digital. Indeed, the massive influx of tweets, likes, comments and emails is much more of a blessing than a curse. When properly handled, they represent a registry of lawmakers’ most outspoken constituents and a compendium of what they care about most.
Congress must abandon antiquated methods and work harder to find new ways to work with citizens. To do this, lawmakers should spend more time and money on what web designers call UX, which stands for “user experience.” Effective UX gets people what they need quickly and efficiently and encourages more meaningful interactions online. Congress is in desperate need of a UX overhaul.
To accomplish this and to learn what users want most, Congress simply needs to ask. In digital parlance, it needs more user testing, which can take many forms, from online surveys to in-depth interviews and focus groups. By collecting, analyzing and acting on detailed feedback from a large, diverse collection of Americans, elected officials can learn a great deal and increase their interactions with voters.
Such outreach has quietly and slowly been happening on Capitol Hill, but it’s often done separately by the Democratic and Republican parties — a reflection of the polarized politics these days. The House and Senate also have acted separately on their own efforts, which only compounds the waste. Each chamber has developed its own set of guidelines for handling digital communications.
The House of Representatives, for example, approved a rules package earlier this month that created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to figure out how to improve the House’s technology from office computers to constituent management systems. The Senate was left to its own devices.
For the sake of the general public, the experience and data compiled by all entities should be aggregated and used in both chambers by both political parties.
Perhaps lawmakers should also consider appointing a joint chief technology officer for both the House and the Senate with a mandate to make digital communications in Congress the best in the world. At the moment, the House and Senate each has its own chief information officer. The findings of the two could be combined so that lessons learned could benefit both chambers.
In addition, lawmakers’ personal offices and standing committees should be allocated at least a 20 percent increase for their communications efforts, earmarked for technology upgrades.
Digital and social media have helped to create the most participatory democracy in the nation’s history. Millions of Americans are getting involved in their government in new ways, and millions more are waiting for their opportunity. Perhaps this new, digitally savvy Congress has what it takes to debug the legislative body and streamline its path to meaningful constituent participation.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is president of BGR Public Relations. Nick Schaper is CEO of Engage.