Few things about Congress are simple: even different types of information it generates as a legislative body – from bill language and roll call votes, to members’ press releases and statements into the official record – are processed and maintained by a myriad of offices. Over the last half-dozen years, public servants of those offices and citizens invested in open access and easy use of the data Congress produces have gathered annually at the Legislative Data Transparency Conference, hosted by the Committee on House Administration. Originally held as an opportunity for the various stewards of legislative data to discuss collective challenges, in recent years the conference also has become a moment to herald the unappreciated success of the legislative data community in standardizing and releasing datasets that help the American people understand congressional efforts and hold elected representatives accountable.
On June 27, I joined OpenGov Foundation Executive Director Seamus Kraft and Demand Progress Policy Director Daniel Schuman on stage at this year’s conference. Our panel discussed how the legislative data community can use Democracy Fund’s Congress & Public Trust systems map to contextualize its efforts in the broader congressional reform movement.
Successes like publishing bill text in machine-readable formats or creating common xml schema are not going to end up on the nightly news. But a proper legislative data infrastructure makes it possible for bill histories and vote records to become evident with a few clicks of a mouse or for instant visualization of how a bill would change existing law. These types of innovations make it easier for members of Congress and their staff and to do their jobs and keep congressional conduct transparent for the electorate. In the broader transformation it encourages, in other words, legislative data reform efforts help strengthen congressional capacity and support a more informed citizenry.
It’s important from a systems perspective to remember that even work on small-scale projects can create ripples of change in a complex environment like Congress. As Schuman reminded the audience, every new dataset that comes online opens possibilities for techies to build new tools that help fill knowledge gaps people within the system can use to solve common challenges.
The panel suggested ways that individual organizations can utilize the systems map to think strategically about their contributions to institutional change. For example, Kraft said that the OpenGov Foundation drilled down on the map in the context of their product design, discovering in the process that constituent engagement was a vitally underserved focus area they could impact with a new project to transform congressional offices’ processing of voicemail and constituent calls.
The systems map also helps remind narrowly-focused communities like the one we addressed Tuesday that their collective efforts also impact the work of similar communities focused on different types of challenges. Washington is full of such groups, whether they focus on government ethics and transparency, the rules and procedures of Congress, of the ways in which advocacy groups make their case to lawmakers. Actions by one community change the dynamics of the system in significant ways for others. The challenge for those across such communities who care about a healthy congressional system is working in concert with one another to amplify efforts.
For our part, our team recently revised our systems map to represent our new thinking on congressional oversight of the Executive Branch. These changes better reflect the importance of government watchdog organizations, transparency and government oversight groups, whistleblowers, the media, and others in holding Congress accountable to its Constitutional responsibility to oversee the conduct of federal offices and the White House.