Last week, we hosted a panel on modernizing congress in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. The conversation was originally scheduled for our in-person Code for America Summit in March—it was a relevant topic then, but has become a critical one today.
Digital modernization was already gaining momentum on Capitol Hill before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Now, as a nation and as a democracy, we’re at a point where the legislative branch of our federal government has no choice but to dramatically alter and adapt long-held traditions to better serve the American public. And we have an opportunity to build on existing modernization efforts with more inclusive processes.
In this event, Beeck Center Fellow Lorelei Kelly moderated a conversation between Ananda Bhatia, Anne Meeker, and NAC member Thad Kerosky about a collaboration between the Office of Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Code for Boston. They shared insights from a recent civic voice pilot program around Social Security benefits, and what they’ve learned about incorporating constituents into the legislative process, how to craft legislation and recommendations for long-term solutions that will lead to a renewed and more resilient government.
To hear these insights and more, watch the video below.
- Congressional COVID-19 Response
- Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century
- Code for Boston and Representative Moulton’s Office’s Social Security Benefits Calculator (the Windfall Awareness project)
Good morning. Good morning, I know folks are still trickling in but hello, good morning, good afternoon, depending on where you are tuning in from. Thank you for joining us here at Code for America today for our webinar. Modernizing Congress, Bringing Government into the 21st Century. I’m Marisa Levine, associate director of events and partnerships here. My pronouns are she, her and I’m coming to you from San Francisco. Now, before we get started, since we can’t all be in the room together, I’d love to start by asking everybody to introduce yourselves in the chat as well.
Tell us where you’re tuning in from, what you do, where you work. We’re really excited to have you. If you are unfamiliar with Code for America, we believe that the two biggest levers for improving people’s lives at scale are technology and government. We put them together and we hope government work for the people that need it most. To do this, we build digital services and enhance government capabilities and we help others to do the same across all levels of government. We also organize thousands of volunteers across more than 85 chapters nationwide who improve government in their local communities.
Our goal, it’s a 21st century government, perfect for today, that effectively and equitably serves all Americans. You can learn more at codeforamerica.org. Before we begin though today, we’ve got a few important housekeeping points. Our code of conduct applies as much online as it does in physical spaces. We of course expect today’s session to be a safe and respectable environment for everyone and a place for people who are fully able to express their identities. Check the chat for a link to our code of conduct, if you’d like to review it.
If you are being harassed or noticed someone else being harassed or have any other concerns, please message my colleague, Contasia Placide on Zoom chat or you can send an email to email@example.com. Even though we can’t all be together there are a few ways for you to participate today. To engage throughout the panel, there are two buttons you can use at the bottom of the screen, chat and Q and A. Quick tip if you’re on mobile, click on participants to see chat. Keep introducing yourselves throughout as well. Now, for Q and A, you can submit the questions by clicking the Q and A button at the bottom of the screen.
It’s super helpful if you can include your location and role as well so we have a sense of your perspective and interest. You can also see questions that others are asking and upvote them so we know which one is the most popular will be for our panelist. Only questions asked through Q&A will be considered so make sure you don’t just drop those in chat. We also welcome your tweets. Find us @codeforamerica and stay tuned later this week for an email with the YouTube video of today’s session and as well as some of the materials from today, we’d love to have you share with your community.
There’s a big special thank you today to today’s partner on this conversation the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown. They were one of our Code for America Summit sponsors and while we couldn’t bring the session to you live back in March, we were so pleased to be able to work with them to do this today. The Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation launched at Georgetown in 2014, to rebuild trust in public and private institutions for the public good. The Center brings together smart dedicated people, willing to experiment and work on the messy stuff that makes up our nation’s digital, financial and educational infrastructure.
Beeck is home to a number of action-oriented research projects that examine how data and tech can improve systems that work for people who are often overlooked and left behind. These projects also consider how we can support public institutions to leverage modern technology for greater efficiency and cost savings for better service delivery. Today’s moderator Lorelei Kelly, leads a portfolio on modernizing Congress where she advocates for members and their staffs to use the tools of today to better serve the public and increase civic voice in the lawmaking process.
On that note, we’re incredibly proud to bring together today’s panel, Modernizing Congress, Bringing Government Into the 21st Century. Now, like I said, this conversation was initially slated to take place at our live summit back in March. The focus on Modernizing Congress was relevant then but with the move to virtual operations engagement and so much more now, it’s never been more vital. I’m personally very excited to learn from this excellent group and to also hear about what’s evolved even in the past few months. I’ll introduce today’s panelists.
I’m going to invite them to turn on their video and then we’ll jump right in. Ananda Bhatia, legislative correspondent in the Office of Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat from Massachusetts, also the president of the Modernization Staff Association. Anne Meeker, former director of constituent services, office of representative Seth Moulton. Thad Kerosky, brigade member of Code for Boston and moderator, Lorelei Kelly, fellow at the Beeck Center for social impact and innovation at Georgetown University. I’m going to turn it over to moderator Lorelei Kelly and we’re so excited to hear from you all. Panelists please go ahead and turn on your video.
Are we good?
You’re good Lorelei, I can hear you, it’s over to you.
Good morning everyone. Thank You Marisa, good morning. This is Lorelei Kelly. I’m broadcasting here from rural San Juan County, New Mexico. I’m looking forward to an interactive discussion today. As a moderator, I’m going to just hit some highlights here at the beginning. I’ll be helped today by my colleague, Taylor, who will be putting links in the chat so you can follow up on your own, for background and an informational deep dive, if you’re interested in more. If there’s one thing I’d like for you to take away today from our event, it is that as a nation and as a democracy, we’re at a tipping point, where the only reasonable action is to surge forward.
Individuals including all of you on this call today have the potential for outsized influence. This is true of members of Congress today to take … who take the risk to be innovative and share with their colleagues. The idea of digital modernization just so you know was gaining momentum on Capitol Hill before the pandemic struck. Congress set aside 200 years of tradition in mid May, on the 15th when it changed its own internal rules to allow for remote participation. It’s an unprecedented chance right now for technological innovation and more inclusive processes. It’s up to us, really now, to take this next step to lead.
It’s going to be our challenge and it’s the challenge of a lifetime to build on this modernization momentum during the pandemic and the reward on the other side will be more resilient than a renewed governing system. First of all though, just to put things in perspective, here’s a quick poll. Those of you who haven’t seen Hamilton might have listened to the soundtrack over and over again or probably have heard of it. So, do we have the results in yet? I’m going to go ahead and let you know what the answer is. The answer unfortunately is all of the above.
Americans have spent more on Hamilton the musical tickets, in fact several times more than some of these items, five times more than committees, several million times more than what members get to run an office. That puts in perspective the work that we need to do. The pictures that you saw on the screen just now, one of them was the view out of Seth Moulton’s office in Salem, Mass and we’re very familiar with that, you saw it. It’s the Old Town Hall. The second one was a glamor shot. There you go, the Old Town Hall in Salem. Mass. That’s the shot out of Massachusetts’ 6th.
The second one is what people see on television, it’s a beautiful Capitol Hill and the third one is Congress under construction which just seems to be all the time right now. Most of the budget of the systems of Capitol Hill goes to security and building maintenance. So, the chance that we have today is to, not only see about democracy but really get serious about supporting it and we have to also understand that it’s more than just voting. We need to change our priorities about government. This is something that Code for America has been helping us do for more than decades.
As you listen and participate today, please ask yourself, how might the skills that you have, the unique, more youthful technology and digital skills, structuring data, simply understanding how to produce an event like this today is huge. Most staff, certainly committees might have this kind of capacity but members really don’t, so it’s up to us to provide them these platforms and to build the confidence. How might your time and skills facilitate collaboration and technology confidence building with your local member of the House or Senate? We have 900 district offices in this country so Congress is already devolved and decentralized.
How do we build on this existing shared infrastructure. Today this panel is going to inspire you with an example of exactly that. Anne and Thad are going to share how to Code for Boston work with a local member of Congress, representative Seth Moulton, that’s Massachusetts’ 6th, it’s Boston up to Gloucester, to build a customized Social Security benefits calculator, an app. Then, Ananda is going to share with us an insider’s update on how modernization is continuing during this time of transition. Sorry, I’ve got chickens and horses in the background, you’re going to hear some of that.
Let’s go ahead and start with our first questions and while we’re talking, I also want you to think about this picture of Congress under construction. If you put aside sort of the fact that it is underfunded itself, that it got rid of its technology capacity in the 90s and that it’s just now starting to build it back, think about it in your head and this is how I like to think about Congress, it’s the world’s most powerful makerspace for civics. It’s an ongoing experiment of prototypes and democratic remixes and it’s just waiting for you to collaborate with it. Let’s go ahead and start with the first question.
I’m going to start with Anne. Anne can you tell us about Project Windfall Awareness? What is it? Why is it called that and how did the collaboration with Code for Boston come about?
Yeah, sure. Let me back up a little bit for folks who might not be as familiar with the structure of a congressional office. My former job, I was the director of constituent services for Congressman Seth Moulton. I ran the casework team. What caseworkers do is they’re tasked with solving problems with federal agencies for constituents that their member represents. Our team worked on anything from immigration issues to VA to the TSA, the Social Security, the post office. If it’s a federal agency, we work with it and so, case … I think I would really encourage folks to kind of get to know your local district office and particularly your casework team.
They have … they’re a really vital part of Congress’s oversight responsibility and caseworkers in every congressional office have a really unique kind of street-level view of the pain points across the federal government. This particular project, the Windfall Awareness Project came about because I kept hearing from constituents affected by this rule for Social Security called the Windfall Elimination Provision. Essentially, we call it WEP, little friendly pet name for a rule that we got to know really well but essentially, what WEP does is if you work in both the private sector paying into Social Security and in the public sector paying into a separate retirement fund, for example, a teacher who worked at Stop & Shop during the summers.
Then, when you get to retirement age, Social Security reduces your retirement benefits by a kind of complex formula but that reduction can be up to 50%. The problem that I saw was that for most constituents affected by this, it came as a total surprise and that kind of surprise when you’re planning for your retirement can be financially devastating. Working with these individual constituents, I figured out the formula for reducing benefits so that I can walk a constituent through how that happened and catch if Social Security made a mistake but this was really time-consuming.
It would take several hours for me to do this formula with a constituent, when I had a hundred constituents in my portfolio at any given time. A friend suggested, have you heard about this great organization called Code for America and suggested I reach out to our local CFA brigade to see if they could help me automate that worksheet and Thad and the Code for Boston crew were kind enough to answer my email. To answer your question about the name, I think the name kind of reflects how the aim of the project evolved. It’s called the Windfall Elimination Provision but we ended up calling it Windfall Awareness because the project goes further than what I originally envisioned it doing.
Me just working as me, I could help people understand the formula retroactively. Working with a team to build this tool, we can help people proactively predict how that tools or how the policy is going to affect them. We’re trying to raise awareness so that people don’t get caught in that surprise of having their benefits reduced and also think about raising awareness more generally to kind of find a backdoor way to push Congress to move on legislation that has been stalled for 40 years at this point.
Thank you Anne. I was going to, next move to Thad and just like, what were your initial thoughts about working on a project with a member of Congress? What was your first impression and how did you think about it?
Hey, Thad. We can’t hear you-
Thad, we can’t hear you. Can you … I’m sorry about that.
Yeah. Yeah. I got it. I was double muted. I think it’s working now. Great. It’s always really exciting when a wide-reaching project is pitched to us at Code for Boston, that we can see that our volunteers can address and all around the country, this was one of the very first few times that a Congress person has reached out to our network which with over thousands of … with our thousands of Boston volunteers and a hundred previous projects, we were really excited to see how the teams would be able to ease access to this information needed by Congress Moulton’s retired constituents and then even broader to all different states that are affected by this thing and especially the teachers and firefighters that has spent their whole career working and then caught off guard.
Yeah. Otherwise, that’s I think a good introduction to the general idea behind our project but the ways that … this definitely does connect into what Lorelei is working on more broadly, in the sense that its participation, its connection between the brigade which is a group of volunteers that come together each week or each month and there’s so many of these around the country that we’ve all set up, many of us on this call and so, I’m excited to talk more as we go forward into this conversation about what that meant and how we can think of this one project in the context of all of the different changes that Congress is making right now.
Thank you. I think the other part of this that’s important background is that, I don’t know if you knew this but last January, I guess 2019, Congress created internally a committee on modernization which is a wonderful place for organizations like Code for America, Code for Boston to port in where there’s this whole group of members inside the institution. This rarely happens, it used to happen every 20 years but it had been 40 years since Congress had done this and passed any rules out of a special select committee. The other thing that happened was the Open Data Act was signed into law last January which brought the executive branch online and had all these requirements for machine readability and access and citizen engagement.
Congress is far behind. It’s being outpaced by the executive branch and finally sitting up and taking notice and the other important thing is that Congress has started to bring back its tech capacity. It eliminated its Tech Agency altogether in 1995 and just this year, it funded some more technology capacity, not enough and it’s not a digital service. I’m going to move to Ananda to give us an inside perspective now. Just to preface, many traditional workplaces are moving to online video conferences. Entire businesses have been working remotely for years but social distancing is a real system shock for Congress. So much of the workflow happens in tiny rooms with hundreds of people coming from all over the place.
This is not just members. It’s staff, it’s everyone in the cafeteria, it’s in the elevators, it’s in the tunnels underneath the buildings. Ananda how are members adapting to this sudden change? Are they taking advantage of the new rules for remote participation to connect with constituents? Are they just overwhelmed by that COVID relief? Are they finding any bandwidth to innovate new methods?
Yes, happy to talk about that. To give a little context as well, I am a legislative correspondent also for Representative Seth Moulton. I work in DC, rather than in the district office and a legislative correspondent handles the entire mail program for the office. When you traditionally think about contacting your representative, whether that’s calling them or sending them an email with your opinion et cetera, it goes through me first and then oftentimes, I will redirect the messages, so we get in to the casework team, who works with constituents one on one when there is a problem that we can help them solve with the federal agency.
The biggest struggle that I’ve seen after the pandemic began was this sudden shift to working from home, that was happening at the same time as a huge influx of the mail that we were getting in because of course everybody was dealing with a lot of problems in their personal lives. We saw about double the amount of correspondence that we usually get. We normally get around 2,000 messages a week and now we were seeing 4,000 a week and we also saw about double the amount of personal messages or casework messages that we got in, that’s normally a very small percentage of our mail but now, we were having a lot of people not just wanting to write about their opinions on legislation but about personal issues in their lives that they need their help with.
This is happening across the board. Democratic Offices, Republican Offices, of course this pandemic has touched everybody. You’re getting way more mail that you need to respond to. You want to make sure that you’re talking to your constituents and helping them but you’re also losing a lot of the capabilities that you had initially. So, one big piece of that is your interns. We didn’t have details right away about what interns were allowed to do remotely. We do finally have guidance now but that was a huge barrier for people and then, you didn’t have technology so a lot of offices are scrambling to buy laptops or iPads so that people were able to work from home, because you have to have a government device to do government work and to use those systems.
There were stories of staff assistants running to beat other staffers to Best Buy when the house ran out of them themselves, trying to buy these things but we don’t … there aren’t many funds to begin with and a lot of offices didn’t budget for buying every single member of their staff in the district in DC a new laptop. You also saw changes in the way that we deal with phone calls and emails that’s been a huge problem where a lot of offices just said we’re going to let everything go to voicemail, even now in July, months after it began instead of having a live person answer the phone, when people are calling about really pressing issues and you want to feel like your representative is there, when you’re reaching out.
My general takeaway has been that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was just really overwhelming for offices to make this transition but now that it’s been several months in, I think it’s time for people to start using those methods of innovation and being more creative. We have brought … we have our internship program up and running. We have virtual interns. We’ve actually gotten them devices from the office, if we’re able to like we’ve just driven them a desktop so we didn’t need to buy an extra one. We have 10 people helping us in both DC and the DO.
We have a live person on the phone at all times during the work day, usually an intern that we forward calls to and we have changed the way that we handle emails a little bit. We’re working on using the legislative team more than we used to in order to make sure that we’re responding to people right away.
Thank you for that. One of the things that always struck me and I was a late comer to technology. I finally realized that I was not going to be able to help Congress move forward unless I learned the technology, so I was reluctant and dragged along by a bunch of wonderful colleagues to learn what they were talking about in staff meetings. I sat on that tech translator website on Wikipedia to understand simply the language and the words. We have an opportunity right now, it seems to me, to both improve the deliberative process and the policymaking and the richness of the knowledge because more people can be included in remote technology.
Also, to start experimenting with these tactical technologies, the rules change so that for committees and for briefings and for connections and for site visits and all that, members can use the technology that another organization is made available to them, which is the call to action really for me, for all of you listening, is that invite your member of Congress in to simply socialize. Invite two or three members. Invite the whole delegation in. So, I’d like to go back to Anne and ask like why is this kind of local and tactical technology collaboration important to actually the content, the policy-making content in Congress?
When you look back on it in retrospect like what policy, ideas or inspiration or relationships maybe came out of this that were not just purely technical and coding?
Yeah. Sure. First of all, let me just back up. Don’t just invite your members. Also invite your district staff. If they live near you, I like to think they’re pretty friend and approachable. I think we had a lot of fun work, in the partnership between our office and Code for Boston, just kind of learning about what each other did and kind of raising our team’s tech confidence and also trying to make more people aware of what Congress does and make working with Congress more accessible and approachable for more people. I think that’s fundamentally my answer there, the more expertise from the more perspectives we can bring to policymaking, the better the policy is going to be.
We can talk all day about how Congress needs more tech education, needs more tech awareness, needs better infrastructure. There’s also a really big difference between being briefed on tech and actually hands-on working with a team of technologists to make a project happen. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that kind of experiential learning and understanding of this ecosystem and this skillset in this world. It’s helpful not only for understanding technology’s policymakers, thinking about how to perform oversight over agencies that depend on technology to carry out their mandate but also for thinking creatively about what kinds of solutions are available to the everyday issues that constituents face in dealing with the federal government.
Beyond that, like I said, I’m also hopeful that Congress being accessible and collaborative, will bring more people into the process. One of the most fun parts about working with the Code for Boston team and being at Hack Night every Tuesday for almost a year was when someone would come up to me with a question about how should I engage with Congress. I’m really passionate about the OTA, how do I talk to my senator to make that happen? I loved those, absolutely love those interactions. I really hope that I was able to be helpful there.
I think the more Congress kind of gets out into the world as an energetic collaborative partner rather than the kind of ivory tower on the hill in DC, the more it has a chance of attracting the talent that’s going to move Congress into the 21st century and make policy better.
Thank you for that. Just to do a quick acronym translation, the OTA was the office of Technology Assessment. That was the forecasting arm of Congress that existed until 1995 when it was defunded. It was 120 science experts sitting on Capitol Hill and the difference for that is like they were inside the process of legislation, they had the relationships and networks, they were completely nonpartisan and lots of hundreds of interviews I’ve done with Hill staff, what they really asked for is that kind of close trusted connection in the room available on chat, just to answer some basic questions to connect something they’re seeing to a bigger picture or to identify patterns and trends.
Thank you for that. One of the things I wanted to point out before my next question to all three of you, just to point out that the process of resisting modernization is centuries old with Congress. It took four years for Congress to get a single telephone in 1884 after Alexander Graham Bell received a patent in 1880 and then took another 20 years for Congress to get a switchboard so everybody could participate in a sort of new magic technology. The thing is we don’t have decades this time around. We’re going to need to figure out how to scale and share much sooner.
One of the things Congress have right now is just sort of a central knowledge comments where everybody can just put like a bulletin board, remember those old bulletin boards of, this is what we did, this is how we did it, troubleshooting, learning videos, those kinds of things. An organization like Code for America could do this. I’m trying to talk Georgetown into it. I’d like to ask all three of you, how do we scale this really important pilot project? What are the networks? Ananda, you’re a young staff, modernization staff network. Are there more like that? Who would you go to? Where are these entry points, and I agree with you, district staff are vital.
Keep in mind that about 50% of congressional staff altogether exist in states and districts, that are not on Capitol Hill and we need to build a support apparatus around them and include them of course, I’m really glad you said that so thank you, but the question is how do we scale this important pilot project so people see it as, it’s just a tipping point of moving forward. Anne, why don’t you take it first and then we’ll go, girl, boy.
Yeah, sounds good. Yeah, like we’ve touched on, personally, I think that caseworkers are kind of an untapped pool of potential for this kind of … for scaling these kinds of projects. I really can’t … again, I was a caseworker for three years. I can’t speak highly enough of the other folks that I met who were caseworkers in other offices, who had that really interesting tactical ground eye view of what was wrong with federal agencies and especially what was wrong across multiple federal agencies. I just don’t think that perspective exists in many other places and it led to a lot of the legislative policies, a lot of the legislative projects that we worked on, came from that cross agency perspective.
I think there’s space for a network of caseworkers to drive stuff like our Social Security benefits calculator. The problem is district staff are so siloed. When I worked on the Hill or when I worked in Congress, we had an email listserv to communicate with each other and every now and then we’d have an agency sponsored conference and that was the only way I could get to know other caseworkers outside of my state but I think if we had more of a network, even if there was just some kind of Slack for caseworkers, we could do things like push this Social Security calculator.
If it goes out to caseworkers then it eventually goes off the chain and hopefully that would lead to better legislative outcomes around the projects that we’ve had to kind of hack on building these other apps to fix them. Does that make sense?
Yeah, thanks Anne. That sounds great and I guess I would address this in two different levels. On the one hand, kind of what you were just talking about, the networks that we have in the brigades can continue to engage with their district offices. I made a map where it shows all of the district offices and where all the brigades are, so you can easily see, “Oh my representative is just … has an office like a couple miles from me,” and they could come to my hack night or call in during this time. Ananda and I hosted an event on Capitol Hill earlier this year that was kind of getting those connections started as well on the DC side.
The second sort of level of that is … for this project that we’re working on, we’ve created a bit of … we’ve created the tools that can be used by district offices but like Anne said it really … because it’s so compact, now it can even serve people beyond those context. We’ve kind of taken that wisdom and put it in to the tool, the product and so, since December, when we launched, we’ve imported a living copy of the official detailed social security policy engine into our app and it was a desktop app from the 2002 era but it kept … but it’s been kept legally up-to-date and now it works newly in the web environment.
This allows us to support users doing even advanced retirement planning and that conversion had never really been done before. We were able to do it because we leveraged our really advance technology volunteers and connected this with the policy side and kind of identified the need. All our code is in the public domain and we think we could even work across the branches potentially but we’re really excited to work across both of these across the Brigade Network, engaging with the district offices and maybe even working with social security itself, thank you, it should be the code back.
Yeah, I would just say, I mean so the staff association that I’ve started is primarily for our junior Hill staffers, staff assistants and LCs and we’ve been working on internal reform issues that affect our day-to-day work and I would love to hear from any Hill staffers for sure, if they’re interested in that kind of thing and making flags and tours and all of those systems that are just a pain to deal with better. As far as scaling this kind of work across other offices and connecting … like doing the kind of thing that Anne and Thad were able to do, I think that’s something that every single office across the country can and should be doing, which would be wonderful.
I love that somebody asked a question about how do you approach your congressional office without having an ask which is actually something that Thad and I talked about originally when we were trying to get people on the Hill. The concern was we were in the middle of appropriations and a lot of time when an outside group comes and sends you an email and says, “Hey I want to meet with you guys,” you’re assuming tons and tons of groups are trying to meet with you, asking for their specific cause that they’re working for. Finding a way to reach out to your … I would say definitely reach out to your district office, not to … don’t just find the main link on the website.
Email your congressman like see if he can find your district staff because they’re the ones who will work with constituents and are more likely to work with you and just as well as you can, make it clear like this is, where we have noticed that there are these kind of problems in our community. We have this resource. We would love to help you build something and make it easier for you to work. I think people would be receptive to that. I’m also really a fan of encouraging … considering reaching out to lower level staff, not just the district director. I mean we have … I have a counterpart staff assistant in our district office.
She’s incredible and a lot of the time those are the people who have more capacity to brainstorm newer ideas in my opinion so I would not be afraid to do that as well. Would love if … Anne, if you have anything else to add about how to reach out to your DO without them turning you away, making sure they understand the ask.
Yeah, I think just exactly what you said. I think there’s a lot of very well-meaning advice out there on how to reach out to your congressional office that really focuses on the member and the senior staff like if you are not talking directly to your member, it’s not worth your time, which is just not at all true and I think also just from my experience working with Code for Boston, I was afraid when I took on the project that this was going to be more work than I was ready for. I had a lot on my plate as a caseworker. I had over a hundred cases. I was managing a team.
I think being upfront with the staff that you’re talking to about like, “Look, I understand your workload and I just really am here to see if there’s something that I can take off your plate, is there something that I can do, can I automate a process for you that will let you do more of the work that you feel is actually worthwhile?” Also just building … I think that comes from like building up credibility and personal relationship. Again, I was at Hack Night for Code for Boston every Tuesday for almost a year and maybe the first couple of months I was there for the project and then after that, I was there for the project and the people because I build that relationship with them. I love seeing them.
It just really made me … It gave me hope and faith that my job was doing something, just to work with that crew volunteers who were so mission driven, so … giving their time to help people. Building that relationship is really not something that you can underestimate. It takes time. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of work. It’s not going to work every time. I don’t think every office is going to be receptive to something like this. Not every office is as supportive of the kind of entrepreneurial projects that Ananda and I got to work on in our office but it’s always worth a try.
It really is, just reaching out to your district office and say, “Hey, can I take you for a virtual cup of coffee.”
Thank you. Can you all hear me okay? I just had a little bit of a glitch. I’m having the full rural broadband experience. So, the websites I would point out to people too are just house.gov and senate.gov and there’s a list where you can go in and find your state and they have their district offices and also a map of their district, most of them do on their member website. Thad if you could put that … I love that you made the Code for America map on top of districts. That’s incredibly useful. Congress has a mapping capacity now, in the Library of Congress they have a contract with Esri I believe. It’s not the only one they can use, keep in mind, the mapping is just completely a wonderful new experimental realm also from members.
The question I have now is just about Code for America and this amazing distributed network who could bring to bear just these kinds of production skills that we’re using right now. Members need to be socialized and helps just … and staff socialize on the technology, that’s just this idea that you can do it when you keep in mind also that the average age in the House and the Senate is 60 and in the Senate even higher around there. They’re not sort of brand ambassadors for technology. They haven’t used this so much in their life before Congress and a lot of the younger members also are wonderful entrepreneurs in this space.
It’s much, much more intuitively easy for them, so that’s another bonus. There’s caucuses. I think there’s the Millennial caucus. There’s the under 40 members. There’s tech caucuses. There used to be a blockchain … so those are also members who have some sense of technology and then when you’re on your members’ website look at their committee assignments because those are the issue areas where they’re required institutionally to know something. It’s not the only thing that they want to know about. Very often members don’t get to work on what they love, so a wonderful opportunity is to help them socialize with the technology on an issue that they actually love.
You’re doing two things. One is letting them connect on an issue that they’re passionate about two, helping them simply get comfortable with this kind of multi-tasking, video conferencing platform. My next question is just on Code for America and it offers just these tremendous skills and also, it’s geographically located across the United States, just like Congress. Thad could you share some of what Brigades have been doing over the past few months during the pandemic or before, that you see is most suited to adapt for Congress, for these purposes of socialization, confidence building and getting the connection back with the constituents? Thanks.
Absolutely. Of course, the network has been very, very active in the time of COVID-19 and just trying to support different efforts all around the country to make information available about disease modeling, food, tax refunds and health resources and we have a link that maybe I’ll share on the chat about all of those. Specifically to your question, I just mentioned in the chat, we did make a recording of the Hill event that Ananda and I put together earlier this year and we’ll get that onto the Brigade Channel, Code for America Slack, so that’s a great resource.
There’s a lot of advice from their team and from Senator Wyden’s office, who suggested how brigades might engage and the former Code for America Brigade advisor Chris Whitaker also kind of facilitated that in a really nice way. Check that out and besides that, I think that we really need to keep working. We need to kind of re-engage with some of the things that we started. That map that I mentioned is a good example. We have other … in advance of that event, I put together kind of a list of all of the senators and congress people and the committees, so that we could really visualize them.
Understand who we’re talking to, what committees they’re on and maybe what awards the districts have won and we can prioritize, “Okay this district office is going to be great to work with and we should talk to the brigades that are near there,” so that they can make the connection, like everybody’s been saying that the offices have been really overwhelmed up until this moment but maybe now is the time to start doing that so definitely reach out to me, if you’d like to help me with that. Thank you, Lorelei.
Thank you. I think, what you just said just reminds me also of what Anne said a few minutes ago which is anything you can do to help office optimize its staff time to be able to not be doing sort of routine tasks but connect on policy, meet with constituents, learn how to use a new video conferencing platform, those are all things that just human beings out there, I mean until two months ago, it was the three-ring binder and a big clunky 1995 set of conference phones, people still carry around two phones, smart phones everywhere because of security concerns and the inability to connect.
I know someone on the Senate side who’s the technology staffer, who didn’t get a secure laptop. Go ahead-
Yeah, if I can just … One of the really successful projects of the COVID era has been at the Code for America level, almost … so many of our brigades have been involved, Code for Boston has been involved, has been this Volunteer Income Tax Assistance project and we’ve connected with all of these local organizations that are used to working face-to-face. It’s almost a similar problem. We’re not doing anything fancy. We’re just helping them with the technology and maybe that’s what we need to adapt to this network, to this congressional network. Thank you.
For sure. I also found in my field research, that a lot of members don’t realize this sort of blossoming of makerspaces around the country, where you have people who have this very civic collaborative mindset but it doesn’t necessarily connect directly to civics and I’ve always thought that you could do really interesting things there, land-grant public universities have special relationship with Congress because they’re public entities. They have an easier time partnering but really any … like my dream would be to do a COVID relief hearing with the frontline health responders like how about nurses with GoPro cameras in their heads or cashiers or FedEx drivers or the people who are really at risk during this pandemic and have online events with them as the witnesses.
Submit their public witness testimony into the record, members can do that. We created the side hearing which is links, I think Taylor is putting it up. It has a playbook for how you create that kind of an event and then the member actually puts the formatted structured information into the searchable record of Congress because now committees are required to have electronic repositories. Keep in mind that a lot of the committee’s repositories were old files in the basement of Rayburn and Longworth. They haven’t really come up to the modern era but other committees have actual archivists.
The National Archives has archivists and a legislative working group. I mean those are people I think who would actually respond to someone who checked in or if the organization, Code for America checked in and said, “Hey we want to create five different structured data formats for districts,” and like Anne, anybody who’s worked in a district office like what would be just some basic ideas for structuring input that then all of Congress could use as feedback because again it’s that knowledge Commons, it’s that common pool of resources and sharing that really doesn’t exist anymore and it did used to exist so it’s in the muscle memory of Congress to share and so we can recreate that right now.
Do we have any questions that anybody or … because I have a couple more and I could keep going. I’ll keep going and just chat me with … The next question I have is for Thad and Anne and then also Ananda after this, is the worlds of coding and legislating don’t really overlap them. They should overlap a lot more and there’s a cohort of people coming up where they overlap a lot more. I would just ask like what did you wish you had known at the beginning of this partnership that you know now, just to give people confidence that this is just a matter of reaching out your hand and introducing yourself and saying, “How can I help you? Let’s do something together.” Anne, do you want to take that one first and then Thad-
Do you want to go first?
Either way. Sure, I’ll jump on it. The biggest thing I wish I had known about, I wish I had been less intimidated by the idea of like taking on a tech project. Guys you have no idea, I did not have a smartphone until I was 23, like I am not the person that you would expect to be working on a tech thing and the first few times I walked into the Code for Boston meetup, I was surrounded by all these brilliant coders and designers, engineers and I felt super out of my desk. I’m not going to lie to you but I was really lucky that the Code for Boston crew was so wonderful and so very, very patient with me in making this feel accessible and clear and building my personal tech confidence to the point where I felt like I was a productive partner on the project.
I think we’ve touched on this before but part of getting over that intimidation was realizing how well that our two jobs overlapped, how well the mission of the brigades overlapped through the work that I was doing, feeling like we’re on the same page, mission wise, just kind of using different words to describe some of the same processes aside from just the actual technical part. One way I can … one kind of specific example I can give is speaking of policies that came directly out of suggestions from our constituents, our office introduced a bill called the TL; DR act a couple of years ago.
The Too Long; Didn’t Read Act, that would have called for federal agencies to standardize some of the constituent facing communication across, like social security, and the VA and again any other federal agency that was sending out constituent facing information that had a specific ask or a deadline. Part of working on that legislation was kind of thinking about it as an iterative process, which is not something that I never thought of before and I feel like I learned from working with the tech world and Code for Boston, thinking of how do we write this bill and then how can we test it without actually having to introduce it?
How can I do draft letters to see if this is possible for an agency, to see if just me as a caseworker, I feel like I can write these letters better in a way that was going to make sense, that we could translate into good legislation. Thad you probably have some … your perspective on what you wish you’d know before working with us.
Yeah, thanks. I mean going back to that larger … that work that we had started earlier this year, about the Brigade Network, it’d be wonderful to have sort of an x-ray into the different congressional offices. Thankfully a lot of the information about them is public but if we can find some sort of proxy, that would indicate whether like really a partnership could really blossom then that would be really fantastic. I also wish I had really seen at the early stage, how well aligned we are between the district office work and the brigades. We both really share a passion about making the systems align and the gears match up and making it work for people.
Also, I have kind of realized through the process and would tell anybody else that’s listening on this, that caseworkers are really the ideal partner on any tech project that our brigades are working on. They often stretched their limit so they need help but they don’t always have time to ask for it and they carry so much wisdom on the pain points from constituents that they work with and it doesn’t have to be congressional caseworkers but especially congressional caseworkers in this case. Then, that wisdom can be written into a product that serves everybody better. Thank you.
Caseworkers and LCs to shout out Ananda.
The legislative correspondent. Yes, exactly. I think we’re almost ready to wrap up but I would like to know what the silver lining, what is the silver lining for modernization during this pandemic and how can we make this a pivot sort of toward a democratic renaissance for a lack of better word, like what would be your dream for Code for America and other technology savvy people to assist Congress and push on through and get better on the other side and please include anything in your response that I might have missed in this discussion today. Ananda, do you want to go first?
Yeah, I can talk a little bit about this. I’ll start by saying, I think this is an incredible opportunity and I think that a lot of offices and Congress as a whole are not taking advantage of it. I think that general conversation has played out at the national level when we talked about remote voting and remote committee hearings and that kind of thing but it’s also some of those smaller processes that people deal with day to day and I think the constituent relations, examples they gave earlier are great examples of that, same with … one of the things that my Staff Association pushes for or has been pushing for is changing the process of submitting legislative documents.
For those unaware, whenever you co-sponsor a bill, you have to print out a new form, get the member of Congress to sign it. Write like the names of the member who wants to get on the bill and run a piece of paper from your office to the cloakroom which is often, I don’t know, like a 20 minute walk away, depending on where you are. There are a lot of members of Congress so if you get a lot of people in your legislation which you usually want to do, that’s a lot of back-and-forth running this piece of paper and we’ve never understood, why can’t you just email it? There’s certainly other ways to do this.
We started doing electronic submission of these kinds of legislative documents because we’re in the middle of the pandemic and people are working from home but the speaker has said, we are only doing that until the pandemic is over and we’ll be back to our old system. I think that’s just a perfect example of why. I mean, there’s lots of systems that have been broken for a long time and that we’re really seeing even more the problems with them, now, that we’re working from home and so, showing … using this time to really take advantage of the fact that we need to be rethinking these systems so why don’t we rethink them not just for the pandemic but for the long-term.
I would say that’s for congressional offices internally too, is there a better way to be handling your mail system and same with projects with Code for America is just another great example like what are the problems that you’re facing day to day with federal agencies that constituents are constantly writing in about? Are they things that we could be doing better and that are even more pressing now that we’re in the middle of the pandemic. Now is a great time to have those conversations.
Yeah. Thad, do you want to jump in? Also, on top of that we’re going into an election season and so, a lot of members and staff … certainly staff who work on policy have more bandwidth to do the deep contemplative or experimental stuff now because so much of the bandwidth and focus is going to be on November so just keep that in mind too. Anne or Thad, do you want to jump in, what’s the silver lining? Anything else we missed?
Yeah, sure. Just to be clear, I haven’t worked in Congress for the past six months so I feel like I’m … yeah and I’ve seen this from a slightly different perspective now but one thing I’ve really been thinking about watching the pandemic response play out is how … A lot of times constituents who came into work with our team were really … their understanding of the government changed because of a bad experience they had with the public facing part of their government. If someone interacts with the federal government, let’s say four ways a year with the TSA, with the IRS, with the Postal Service and with Social Security and they have a bad experience at three of those, there’s no reason that they should be confident in their government.
I think that we’re seeing this, I really hope that the pandemic has a silver lining that this is … that everyone is kind of realizing how dependent they are on government to work for them and how much they should have a personal stake in engaging with government to hold government accountable and make sure that it works for them. It’s a bit of a dark take on it that we’ve all been so negatively affected and government has failed us in so many ways during this pandemic, that hopefully that failure will push for more engagement and more of a change.
Like we’ve been talking about for this whole conversation, I hope that this group, I hope these attendees, I hope Code for America, I hope the congressional offices that are engaged and dynamic and pushing on this stuff and who take the nuts and bolts of constituents interacting with the federal government seriously is something that deserves legislation, that deserves a time and energy. I hope all of those kind of coalesce to take advantage of this moment.
Just to build on that, Anne did a fantastic session describing the last … we have this event at Code for America called Brigade Congress where all of us from all of these local brigades, these 85, 90 local brigades come together. Last year was in Cleveland where Anne is based currently, and Anne was able to describe what it is so that was kind of the beginning of this conversation with a larger Brigade Network but now, we’ve spent the last three or four months completely remote, all of us and so, that’s changed the way that our local brigades have worked. It’s changed the way our national network has worked as brigades.
It’s shown what’s possible in coordinating, in a way that we couldn’t have before. So, I’m excited to … that all of you who are on the call from our network and look forward to working together more to deepen this connection with Congress that we’ve sort of started to establish with Congressman Moulton’s office and others.
Thank you so much. That’s a perfect hopeful ending and call to action. Everybody, thank you for joining us today. I’m going to hand it back over to Marisa and hopefully we’ll be seeing you all again.
Thanks so much Lorelei and a huge thanks to all of our panelists and to all of you for joining today. Again, thanks to our panelists, Ananda Bhatia, Anne Meeker, Thad Kerosky and our fabulous moderator Lorelei Kelly. Also, a big thanks to the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation for supporting today’s conversation. As you heard today, there are a ton of great ways for you to get involved in this work, whether it’s through a brigade or through Code for America. If you are curious about a brigade, check out brigade.codeforamerica.org. There are more than 85 of them across the country.
Chances are one is in driving distance but as Thad mentioned, everything is virtual now so pick your hometown brigade, if you are so inclined. We’re also planning for our National Day of Civic Hacking led by our network of brigades on September 12th, it’s a perfect time to get involved and if you want to share this conversation with your community, it will be recorded and sent to you and follow up later today so please keep an eye out. Check us out online, consider supporting us as a non-profit and we are so grateful for everybody who is a part of this community and a part of this work and excited to see what comes in the coming months. Thank you all. Have a great day and we look forward to seeing you again soon. Bye-bye.