Jul 30, 2019

Tech Talk: What Can Congress Learn from the States?

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recently examined legislative technology innovations found in state legislatures to learn how Congress could implement similar strategies to improve its legislative process. Several states have already taken important steps in modernizing their technologies that make their legislative activities more streamlined, efficient, and accessible for constituents. But as state governments continue to modernize and advance their legislative technology, the federal government is falling behind. Quoting Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chairman Kilmer described Congress’s outdated system: “Congress is an 18th Century institution using 20th Century technology to solve 21st Century problems.”  

The Modernization Committee hosted three witnesses to learn what technology innovations have helped state legislatures modernize their legislative activities so that Congress can consider implementing similar solutions. Witnesses included Mike Rohrbach, Chief Information Officer & Director of Information Technology at the Washington State Legislature; Diane Boyer-Vine, Legislative Counsel at the State of California; and Nelson P. Moe, Chief Information Officer at the Commonwealth of Virginia. Here are four key takeaways: 

1. The modern workforce is increasingly mobile, and employees are not constrained to desks: It’s time to move away from paper 

Work environments are increasingly becoming more dependent on technology and less dependent on paper. Moving away from paper-based systems and toward online applications, governments can provide employees with quick and easy access to important documents and information no matter where they are. Washington state has already embraced the transition from paper to digital through implementing an online cloud-based system for legislative data, according to Mr. Rohrbach. The Washington State Legislature keeps its email system located in the cloud, which serves staff member, committee, and workgroup needs. The cloud system allows for increased mobility as it can be accessed anywhere from various operating systems, but it also prioritizes security by creating concentric circles of data with varying levels of accessibility.   

California has also prioritized mobility through its member portfolio, an online application project that acts as a legislative data center for legislators, staffers, and constituents. The web-based portfolio allows members and staff to upload and annotate documents, view support and opposition letters for legislation, and see updated vote information. The coolest part? Constituents can also participate in the legislative process using the portfolio by tracking amendments to bills, which are shown using strikeouts and italic text for easy comprehension, and by submitting electronic letters to share their opinions on legislation.  

2. Modernized legislative technologies equal a more accessible government. 

New technologies not only improve the efficiency of legislative processes, they also make the government more accessible to constituentsTechnology empowers citizens to participate in the policymaking process, according to Chairman Kilmer. Constituents often want to be active participants in the legislative process, but older systems of engaging citizens are too complicated or difficult to use.  “Citizens want a consumer-quality experience when interacting with their government,” Rohrbach noted. Emphasizing the importance of technology in making the government more accessible to constituents, he added: “Signing up to testify before a committee should be as easy as booking a hotel room; and tracking a bill they care about should be as easy as tracking a package. They want to do it all from their phones and tablets.” Mr. Rohrbach also shared some of the Washington state legislature’s most notable successes: their award-winning website is easy to use on phones and tablets; they have subscription services through which constituents can receive email and text notifications about legislation they’re tracking; and they’re currently investing in accessibility compliance to make sure all constituents have access to the same information, regardless of age or ability. 

3. Innovation will always come with some risk—the key is building a system that adapts. 

As Rep. Kilmer said in his opening statement, a risk-averse approach to technology leads to the status quo instead of the cutting edge. If Congress wants to push toward the cutting edge and use modern technology, there will be some risk involved. When asked about adapting to a 5G or even 6G world, Mr. Rohrbach said that the Washington state legislature invested in the necessary infrastructure early on—a significant investment that paid off but could have been considered riskyMoe noted that IT managers have a lot on their plate, from managing existing services, to procurement, to integrating new tech, to anticipating funding needs and dealing with appropriations. Between all of that, they’re not incentivized to take risks 

The key to innovation, therefore, is to build a system that rewards risk and can integrate new technology easily. Mr. Moe described Virginia’s system as operating like Lego building blocks— each part is developed individually but designed to connect easily. Badding non-exclusionary clauses and language that allows them to remove vendors who underperform, the Virginia General Assembly has created a system in which risks don’t always have to pay off and new, innovative tech can be easily integrated.  

Competition is also key—Moe described a two-step forum process through which vendorcompete for contracts. First, they can present their ideas to solve the legislature’s problemsThen, legislators and IT staff alike provide feedback to Moe’s office before any new technology is integrated. By building a system specifically designed to change and to reward innovation, Congress can adapt to risks and reap the reward of modernization. 

4. Technology is not the key nor the barrier to success: it’s people.” 

With a rapidly changing technology and all of the possible solutions to legislative problems, there’s another important piece of the puzzle: people. In order to integrate new technology, members and staff must be part of the process. California’s paperless initiative and member portfolio application are significant, but not all of their state legislators are on board yet. Members and staff need to be trained, and they need time to adjust to new systems. So, how do you increase buy-in? Keep legislators involved in every step of the way. When the Washington state legislature is considering new tech, they reach out to members who are risk-averse as well as those who are willing to take risks to beta test. When members feel like they have a stake in the technology they helped develop, they can influence their colleagues and help bring bold, new solutions into more offices faster. 

Many states have moved towards modernizing their legislative technologies as part of a larger effort to make the policymaking process more efficient and accessible. As these states have moved forward in advancing the technological systems of their governments, Congress has not prioritized the innovation efforts, causing the federal government to fall behind the states in technology. It’s time for Congress to address its outdated technology systems and to incorporate 21st-Century technology to better solve 21st-Century problems. 

If you missed the hearing and want to learn more, you can find it here. 

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