WASHINGTON—Average staffing levels for members of Congress have remained the same since 1974, at around 18 staff per House member, and yet the amount of mail that Congressional members receive has surged. Mail to senators increased by a staggering 865 percent between 2002 and 2009, according to a report from the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF).
Congress, in many ways, labors under antiquated systems of information processing and communication.
When the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told a 2006 U.S. congressional hearing that the Internet was a “series of tubes,” he was ridiculed by media across the nation, and his words were immortalized in online lore. The senator’s description, however, highlighted an issue that remains relevant to this day.
Congress as the “first branch of government … should be the most technologically savvy, the closest to the American people, and most innovative in delivering new forms of learning and democratic practice,” said Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow with the Washington-based think tank the New America Foundation (NAF).
Today, it is none of the above. The standing of Congress in the community is low, and civility is lacking, Kelly opined. At the same time, “citizen expectations have outpaced governments’ abilities” to engage, inform, and work with its constituents, she said.
Kelly was speaking at a NAF forum on Aug. 7 on how changing technology is impacting Congress.
The short answer is that technology is having a positive impact, but it is nowhere near as fast, or as much, as most would like.
One of the immediate problems is a growing imbalance between the amount of information flowing into Congress, and the amount legislators can process it and put it out, said Susie Gordon, vice president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan CMF, at the NAF forum.
“We are talking about a huge explosion with very limited resources to deal with that increase,” Gordon said, referring to the increase in mail coming into congressional offices.
CMF issues an annual Gold Mouse Award, which recognizes the most informative and engaging congressional websites. Last year, 92 different criteria were applied to 618 congressional websites. Those that did badly were not publicized but informed of areas lacking, while those that did well or developed innovative interactive tools were highlighted to encourage others.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) won the 2011 Best Senate Member Website, and his site includes daily schedules, timelines, staff contacts for highlighted issues, and ways in which his office could assist constituents.
The Best House Member Website went to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for his interactive use of social media plus a “Top 5 Issues of the Week” section and an online “Listening Session Schedule.”
Members of Congress increasingly make use of social media, but one inhibitor is simply the age difference between members and staff.
“It is not unusual for a 22-year-old staffer to be working for an 85-year-old member of congress or senator, so the divide between them and what their views are on social media can be dramatic,” Gordon told The Epoch Times after the event.
Of staffers 30 years old and younger, two-thirds believe that social media is worth the office time spent on it, but only 32 percent of colleagues 51 and older feel the same, according to a 2010 CMF report.
Jessica Lee, a legislative assistant for Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), said that social media has become integral to a legislator’s ability to communicate to constituents.
“Facebook, Twitter, and blogs … reach people more quickly than putting out a press release and hoping a media picks it up,” she told the forum. “Things are changing very rapidly.”
Lee said that information technology provides tremendous potential for Congress. She highlighted a number of initiatives that were already making a difference, including two mobile applications from the Government Printing Office (GPO): One is a contact list and biographies of all members of Congress, and the other is an FY13 budget app, which includes budget overviews for each government agency.
Also useful is a sequestration report from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), which lists the impact of sequestration on nondefense jobs and services, including tables for each state, and Citizen Cosponsor, an application downloadable from Facebook from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that allows constituents to “co-sponsor,” or follow, bills.
The public expects Congress to source, synthesize, and communicate vast amounts of information, yet technology is only just beginning to make a dent in that process. Speaking at the forum, Tom Hallaran, co-founder of the IT firm IB5k, highlighted the challenge.
Hallaran has been working with House and Senate members to help sort constituent emails, either by maps or topics, and also to separate them from advocacy groups. While IB5k has developed a communications platform to facilitate that process, Hallaran told the forum that there is still much more work to be done in sorting and processing inbound communication and information right across Congress.
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