Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Congressional Facebook Hackathon report maps legislative transparency solutions; now what will Congress do?

by February 13th, 2012

Imagine if instead of emailing or calling your U.S. Congressman or Senator with concerns about pending legislation, you could re-draft a portion of the bill text online, or endorse the revisions of another reader, knowing you’d be heard by decision-makers? In fact, there’s a very beta version of that called Madison, unveiled by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif) and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to harvest legislative text revisions from the public to privacy and transparency bills such as OPEN, PIPA, and earlier, the controversial SOPA or “Stop Online Piracy Act.” This open real-time bill markup tool is just one of the public tool concepts outlined in a recently-released report on the first Congressional Facebook Hackathon.

The bipartisan public-private forum was held in early December to explore how social media and technology can make the U.S. Congress more open, accessible and participatory to stakeholders. Below we’ll hit some highlights of the report. In addition to real-time public markup of legislation, they include an online Git repository of legislative text; crowd-sourced committee hearings; and a constituent casework tracking portal. Still unclear is what happens next, and to what extent the tools envisioned could be developed under common technical standards, and a similar look and feel for end-users, on a state-by-state basis.

On their own, transparency advocates such as the non-profits Open Congress and the Sunlight Foundation have already introduced prototypes pre-saging Madison. And the Congressional Facebook Hackathon wasn’t a “hackathon” in the usual sense of pulling a Mountain Dew- and pizza-fueled all-nighter to write some code for a new app. But as O’Reilly Radar’s Alex Howard reported, it signified a new level of publicly acknowledged buy-in by Congress to the technology and transparency ethos.

There wasn’t a great deal of hacking, at least in the traditional sense, at the “first congressional hackathon.” Given the general shiver that the word still evokes in many a Washingtonian in 2011, that might be for the best….In a time when partisanship and legislative gridlock have defined Congress for many citizens, seeing the leadership of the United States House of Representatives agree on the importance of using the power of data and social networking to open government was an early Christmas present….What came out of this unprecedented event…won’t necessarily be measured in lines of code. It’s that Congress got geekier. It’s that the House is opening its doors to transparency through technology.

Organized by Matt Lira, the Digital Director for U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Steve Dwyer, the Online Communications Director for House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the session was conceived after a meeting between legislative leaders and Facebook executives. It drew Capitol Hill government technologists and programmers from across the U.S. who, according to the report, “share a common passion for developing solutions to restore the faith of the American People in our country’s legislative institutions.”

Other key suggestions in the report were:

  • An online “Git Repository” of legislative text so the public could see which lawmakers added or subtracted what language to a bill, and when. Echoing the “Git Hub” approach used by programmers, it would “enable richer legislative data that could identify involvement in the writing and editing of a particular bill as well as larger trends in bill drafting activity over the course of a Congress.”
  • Crowd-sourced committee hearings would allow the public to suggest – as soon as the date and bill or topic of a hearing is scheduled – what guests to invite to testify, what questions to ask them, and what sub-topics to probe. “During and after the hearings, a public website would allow experts to comment and fact-check testimony, building a richer record for analysis.”
  • Develop better bulk data processing capabilities so that voluminous online versions of the Congressional Record and the legislative compendium called THOMAS can be explored more easily.
  • Using “structured information provided by the Clerk,” provide automatic updates on social media sites of Representatives and Senators of how they voted on specific bills, augmented with basic bill information from non-partisan sites such as that of the Clerk and THOMAS.
  • Create a “Facebook message tab” on legislators’ Facebook pages would let constituents correspond with them and the funnel the messages directly into the constituent correspondence process.
  • A “civic profile” application would let constituents know who their elected officials are, from Congress down to the local level, and would verify for public officials that the individual contacting them was really a constituent. Building on this, another app could share a continually updated compendium of what constituents within legislative district or other government jurisdiction are discussing on social media.
  • A “casework tracking portal” would using shipping industry protocols so constituents could follow progress on their requests to law-makers’ offices for assistance resolving problems and concerns in dealing with government agencies. “Aggregated data could be made publicly avaialable to show the overall casework workload processed by Congress on an ongoing basis.” A “Facebook Casework Tab” would embed “secure casework forms” from a member’s Web page at their Facebook page as well, to make it easier for constituents to initiate a request for assistance.

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