Imagining the Congress of the Future

Communications • June 5, 2015

“In this new Congress, what excites me most is how we can use technology to make government leaner, more transparent, and more accountable to Americans.”

Personal Democracy Forum, New York City, June 5, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) today delivered remarks at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) conference. She called for interacting with Congress to be more like using Uber than visiting the DMV.

“Innovations in technology have the potential to revolutionize the way citizens interact,” McMorris Rodgers said, in a speech titled Imagining the Congress of the Future. “Technology can solve problems and improve lives by changing government’s approach to public policy.”

Personal Democracy Forum, an annual gathering of civic technology enthusiasts and thought leaders in New York City, is organized by Personal Democracy Media. This year’s conference focused on “The Future of Civic Tech.”

Highlights from Chair McMorris Rodgers’s Remarks:

“What we’re seeing is a 19th Century institution often using 20th Century technology to respond to 21st Century problems. We need to change that.”

“People expect high-quality, on-demand deliverables in a world that is now digital, mobile, personal, digital, and virtual. This means tax reform shouldn’t take 20 years and answering a constituent letter shouldn’t take three weeks.”

“I want to be a positive disruptor on Capitol Hill. I want to bring the innovative mentality of the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley to Washington and use it to change how government views outreach and problem solving.”

“The same creative thinking that launched Uber and Lyft should be used to spur tax reform. The same innovation that leads to new diabetes and cancer drugs should be adopted when Congress envisions a 21st Century health care system.”

Chair McMorris Rodgers, Remarks as Prepared for Delivery:

“Thank you, everyone. I’m so happy to be here!

Before I launch into the importance of tech in politics, let me tell you a little bit about my background.

It’s a long way from Kettle Falls, Washington to New York City. And if you had told me as a little girl working at a fruit stand that I would one day be sworn in as the 200th woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives—and get to join you fine folks today—I wouldn’t have imagined it possible.

As the Chair of the House Republicans, I take our Republican message to every corner of this country, engaging with people of all backgrounds to articulate our vision for America.

Today I stand beside so many leaders at the intersection of technology and politics – because I am on a mission that is critical for the future of our representative government. And I need your help.

I am here to tell you why it’s so important we modernize government and bring Congress into the 21st Century.

For two reasons:

First, innovations in technology have the potential to revolutionize the way citizens interact with their elected officials. Whether you’re from a small town in Eastern Washington or a great city like New York, if you have access to a computer or a smart phone, you have access to Congress.

And second, technology can solve problems and improve lives by changing government’s approach to public policy.
As you all know –and if our approval ratings didn’t already indicate—Congress tends to be a bit reactive.

We’re elected to be leaders, but Congress tends to be reactionary, not visionary.

It’s easy to allow the crisis of the moment – whether it’s a fiscal cliff or an impending budget resolution – to dominate.

But this inward-focused mindset can make Congress slow to adapt to the evolving world outside its walls.

So what we’re seeing is a 19th Century institution often using 20th Century technology to respond to 21st Century problems.

We need to change that.

I want to be a positive disruptor on Capitol Hill.

I want to bring the innovative mentality of the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley to Washington and use it to change how government views outreach and problem solving.

The internet and smartphones have transformed every other aspect of our lives. So why not extend that to Congress?

Let’s imagine together if our public policy were as bold and creative as our modern technology.

We operate in a world where you can have a package from Amazon arrive on your doorstep the same day;

Where Uber has a private driver at your front door within minutes;

And where people are more likely to wish you happy birthday on Facebook than send a greeting card.

But when it comes to Congress, it takes an average of three weeks for someone to get a form letter response to their questions or concerns. And tax reform takes decades.

Let’s just put it this way: Congress is more similar to the DMV than it is to Uber…and I want to change that!

People expect high-quality, on-demand deliverables in a world that is now digital, mobile, personal, digital, and virtual.

This means tax reform shouldn’t take 20 years and answering a constituent letter shouldn’t take three weeks.

Back in 2009, coming out of the 2008 election, I wrote a memo to the Speaker – which I somewhat jokingly titled “From PC to Mac” – outlining how voters were communicating differently than when I first ran for the House in 2004, or when he first ran in 1990.

There was Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, and YouTube – social media was becoming more important than newspapers in shaping voters’ perceptions.

And we needed to bring Congress up to speed.

But first, we just needed to get them online.

We started with a “New Media Challenge” – a contest to see which Members could best use social media to engage the people they represented. It was enormously successful, and by 2010, 79 percent of our Members were on Facebook and 89 percent were using YouTube.

That was just the beginning.

In that infamous 1960 presidential debate between JFK and Nixon, it was interesting that those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, whereas everyone who watched it on television was convinced JFK had won!

Fast forward almost 60 years and the way we connect to people is transforming once again. Much like the transition from radio to TV, we are pioneering a transformation from traditional to digital media on Capitol Hill.

In 2012, I was elected Chair of the House Republican Conference, with a commitment to transform Congress through modern technology and digital media.

In order to more effectively engage people in the political process, we needed to make it personal. We needed to bring the same innovative approach to Capitol Hill that we’ve seen in tech startups and companies across America.

I’m always inspired by their whole approach:   to imagine what’s possible and make it happen.

It all begins with people – smart, hardworking, creative people who have big ideas.

I wanted to bring that same mindset to Congress.

The same creative thinking that launched Uber and Lyft should be used to spur tax reform.

The same innovation that leads to new diabetes and cancer drugs should be adopted when Congress envisions a 21st Century health care system.

And the same spark that led to the first IBM computer or iMac should inform how we transform the future of education for our students.

Simply put: policymakers should be innovators.

So when I first took over the Conference – the communications hub of the House Republicans – it looked like a law office from the 1950s and functioned like one too.

Many of our Members used social media tools simply to post press releases – not to actively engage with those they represent.

I couldn’t even send out an email announcing the new leadership team without pushback.

I was told it would take a couple days to program the computers to be able to handle a mass email.

And we’d have no way of knowing how many emails were successfully delivered, how many were opened, and how many links were clicked.

So, the first thing I did was hire the best and brightest minds to join Capitol Hill’s most cutting-edge communications team.

We’ve got a dynamic team in place, we’ve launched a Spanish-language Twitter feed, @GOPEspanol, and we’re using graphics and videos to tell our narrative.

I knew we had to bring a little West Coast tech culture to D.C.

So we tore down walls, and repainted the ones that remained. We put in bright colors – along with chalkboard and whiteboard walls for brainstorming. We replaced some of the sitting desks with standing desks and chairs with yoga balls.

Next, we threw away the old website and the old email system and replaced them with responsive, modern technology.

We built an intranet for the first time.

We began social media monitoring.

We live blogged and used Vine and Facebook video to respond to the State of the Union address.

And we were even the first congressional office to Meerkat a leadership press conference! And just days later we were periscoping a major legislative accomplishment!

Keeping attune to the latest innovations is crucial to our mission to be positive disruptors.

Social networks have played a key role in that effort, and we’ve made progress.

Now we’re at a point where Twitter and Facebook use is around 99 percent (there are always one or two holdouts).

Most Members are doing Google Hangouts or Skyping with people back home.

But, in this new Congress, what excites me most is how we can use technology to make government leaner, more transparent, and more accountable to Americans.

We’ve brought in new thought leaders – so instead of more pollsters and policy wonks, Members have heard from people like Simon Sinek, Sal Kahn from the Kahn Academy, and Henry Evans from Robots for Humanity.

We began to match up outside technology innovators – like ZocDoc (which is an “Uber” app for doctors’ appointments) with the Veterans Administration – which is struggling to find a way to schedule medical care for vets.

Through changes like these we have the opportunity to transform the way government functions. Zocdoc makes it possible to see a doctor within 24 hours.

With the VA, well, you’re lucky if you ever see a doctor.

If we can have even half the success of this company, we’d be making tremendous strides in helping those who served get the care they need.

This is one way technology can improve government in the 21st Century, but we still can do more.

Capitol Hill’s staff structure, from job descriptions to responsibilities, is built for a bygone era. Congress is cutting edge…circa 1973.

Our staff are hidden behind a firewall of processes and software that are alienating the people we represent, and are costing us millions of dollars in licensing fees to boot.

So recently we’ve begun to think about a new project to create an open-source solution for constituent communications that anyone could add on to. What if we could tap into the energy of civic technologists like you?

I would love to see a system that is open-source, with real time analytics, with social media and text messaging integrated in from the beginning – and it’s our hope that we’ll be able to respond with quick personal responses and better casework tracking.

We recently passed the USA Freedom Act – and the Senate just voted for it this week and sent it to the President’s desk – and the legislation sets some limits on what these agencies could do, and to better provide transparency to Americans and our International partners as to how seriously we value user privacy.

But more needs to be done.

Being connected with online privacy in the 21st century means the same thing that free assembly and freedom of the press meant in the 18th century.

It’s no coincidence that totalitarian regimes are also the same countries that ban social media.

When I visited Ukraine recently, the mayor of Kiev talked a lot about the aggression of Russian tanks, but also about the great power of digital media that helped spark the demonstrations that toppled their dictator.

The mayor said one thing that I will never forget: “media is more powerful than bullets.”

And he’s right.

We are in a critical battle of ideas.  It’s the most important battle of our time – the battle to preserve America’s values of freedom, self-determination, representative government, and the rule of law.  Those values are not universal.

We win this battle if we reach people’s hearts and minds.  It’s not as simple as saying the right words or typing 140 characters into a Twitter feed.

For my colleagues and me, it starts on Capitol Hill.  By pushing Congress to change its culture, open its mind to the limitless possibilities of the digital world, and recruit companies and thought leaders like you to help us navigate these new and ever-changing challenges.

And together, I know we will achieve great things.”

 

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