Hey, Silicon Valley: D.C. Needs Your Help With More Than Just Healthcare.gov

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 25 2013 9:27 AM

Hey, Silicon Valley: D.C. Needs Your Help With More Than Just Healthcare.gov

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The Capitol needs your help, Silicon Valley.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the wake of the government shutdown, some outstanding citizens on the West Coast are saying regrettable things about government—like about how useless it is.

For those of us working on reform and change in D.C., these comments sting. Why? Because we need California entrepreneurs to help us, not pile on. Many of us actively seek innovation and forward thinking from the Golden State. These hipster scoldings about our civic life sound like a shiny version of the same old profit-driven anarchism that brought us to the shutdown and debt ceiling cliff in the first place.

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Tech geniuses, we need your big brains now more than ever. You are systems thinkers, and we're dealing with a systems problem. You are process geeks, and right now, sympathizing with bureaucratic process is as important as technical chops in the biggest challenges facing our society. And this goes way beyond the problems with healthcare.gov.

According to the Congressional Management Foundation, offices are receiving much more incoming mail in 2010 than in 2002—an average 548 percent increase for Senate offices (“one office ... reported a 1,422 percent increase”) and 158 percent for House. This deluge does not include social media. The signal-to-noise problem is made worse because most tech platforms allow members of Congress to hear from the loudest voices, not necessarily those with expertise. Petitions might add your voice, but they don’t usually sort sentiment from substance. Constituent opinion polls might make great quips for floor speeches, but members need peer-reviewed data for committee deliberations. Committees have not been comprehensively reformed since the 1940s.

Furthermore, there are approximately 200 committees and subcommittees on the Hill, each with its own oversight plan, leadership, and agenda. Modern technology can handle this level of complexity, but it isn’t there yet. Here's a reverse engineering problem for the Bay Area: Help our public-serving institutions think for themselves. Our government, especially our Congress, has been systematically lobotomized over the past 20 years. Outsourced, privatized, and indoctrinated, Congress' information management process is tattered, obsolete. It needs rehabilitation. In tech, we would say it is full of bugs and malicious code. It is also suffering a stack overflow.

This systems degradation often happens because there aren’t enough (let alone adequately informed) staffers to handle real-time policy-making duties. For example, the NSA surveillance and privacy debate has become an important discussion about core American values. Yet the Congressional Research Service—aka Congress' brain—has not had an intelligence expert on staff since the last one retired. That’s right, Congress' own gatekeeper of knowledge doesn't have a topical expert on the most important constitutional subject matter of the day. Congress had more expert staff in 1979 than it does today. It had an entire technology agency dedicated to the policy process—but that agency was eliminated in 1995. And it just slashed staff again by 20 percent.  

California’s tech industry is famous for letting people wear aloha shirts and bring their dogs to work. Congressional staff are lucky to keep their health insurance, which was used as a bargaining chip during the recent furlough crisis. Any enterprising person knows that you can't treat good people like that and expect them to stick around.

Back to relationships. Unfortunately for Silicon Valley types, in government, you can't automate the human beings out of existence. Heck, the humanities nerds who work on the Hill won’t abandon the keyboard phone without a fight. But take heart: The bridge between your revolution and our institutions is slowly being built. In August, the House published the U.S. Code in XML—a machine-readable format. Today, nearly all committee hearings are webcast. But all the technology and transparency in the world won’t matter if we don’t have the humans in place to extract the best input and then interpret it for the needs of the policy process. How will we use technology to reorganize the process, authenticate information  and estimate a decision’s impact on society? How will we make sure that decision makers are accountable for using the best knowledge available? These questions are where California and D.C. intersect.

As the healthcare.gov debacle illustrates, we need innovators, engineers, and technologists to partner with our institutions now more than ever. But they have to meet the institutions halfway. 

I'll admit it, I'm a California chauvinist. I was born in San Jose and raised in the Bay Area. I have lived on the East Coast for 15 years and deep down, I still believe the beach lies to the west. So California, I bring you this criticism with deep affection. Develop some institutional empathy. Your government needs a love offensive right now, not the cold shoulder. Help us, please.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lorelei Kelly is leading the Smart Congress pilot at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.