Monday, February 2, 2015

A grassroots discussion of democracy yields innovative ideas at Harvard's Ash Center

For two days students, tech entrepreneurs and public policy enthusiasts gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to discuss ways to improve the work of the United States Congress. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

For as long as there has been representational government, people have been complaining about the people they elect to represent them. So on the one hand, current national grumbling over Congress is nothing new, but on the other, it does seem like the country is at a point of deep polarization, perhaps as divided as we have been since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's.

To argue over principles is a healthy thing and to debate the best approach to difficult problems is the essence of what we send our representatives to Washington to do.  In an ideal system, this is indeed what would happen, but in the current political atmosphere, the defining feature of which seems to be its intensely partisan nature, to ask our Representatives and Senators to engage in serious, civil debate, often feels like exercise in futility.

What makes this situation all the more frustrating is that there are indeed many thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who want to make a difference. These members and their staffs spend countless hours studying the issues of the day, meeting with constituents and writing legislation, but like all politicians they are also beholden to the almighty dollar, bound to dedicate what many would consider a disproportionate amount of time to fundraising.

This need to gather as much cash, as quickly as possible, not only limits the amount of time that can be spent meeting with constituents and working on legislation, but it also curtails the ability of members to get to know each other and build the personal relationships which are vital to the healthy functioning of a legislative body. 
Establishing and maintaining these relationships is the key, I believe, to fixing many of the problems facing our political system today, and a challenge that I enjoyed thinking about this past weekend at the Ash Center for Democracy and Innovation Hack4Congress event at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

In the spirit of confronting some of the more vexing problems surrounding the function of our national legislature, this innovative program brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds and areas of expertise including policy wonks, tech entrepreneurs and student studying a wide range of topics at area universities. I was also glad to see a variety of other co-sponsors, beyond academia, involved in the two-day event, including 
The SunlightFoundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, Represent Us, CODE2040, POPVOX, Capitol Bells, Generation Citizen, and the Participatory Politics Foundation.

On Saturday morning the organizers gathered everyone in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to view videotaped messages of support for the event from Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and Representative Jared Polis, Democrat from Colorado. The proper spirit of cooperation thus set, the hackathon was ready to begin, and participants were asked to move around the room and stand near either one of two signs reading, alternately, "disagree 100%" or "agree 100%", depending on how they felt about a particular statement on the effectiveness of Congress offered by one of the organizers. Given the purpose of the hackathon I wasn't too surprised to see that while belief in the ability of members of Congress to get things done was high, actual satisfaction with the job Congress is doing was quite low.

The larger group then divided up into smaller teams to look at a number of key areas where the legislative process might be improved, from lawmaking itself to internal communication between members and staff, to initiatives that could incentivize bipartisan cooperation. It was this last topic that interested me the most, since I've often thought that hyper partisan attitudes and politics are the number one issue contributing to gridlock in government.

Over the course of two busy days my teammates and I (representing a truly international effort, with members from France, Australia, the UK, Germany and the US each bringing their own unique experience and perspective to the endeavor) focused less on the ways in which things are broken – we identified this problem early on as the absence of strong working relationships between members of different parties – and focused instead on the idea that by selecting issues which should never be thought of as partisan, such as infrastructure or human trafficking, our project could then identify two Senators or Representatives who have an existing interest in these topics, and encourage them to work together to draft and pass bipartisan legislation on a particular issue.  

One defining feature of the project would be the involvement the general public who could participate by helping to select the issue to focus on and would effectively “vote” for the topic by making a small contribution online, which could then be matched by a donor or set of donors who also care about this topic. If the members of Congress followed the steps of the program – meeting to discuss collaboration, issuing a joint statement, continuing to work together on the issue – then eventually all of the money raised would go directly to a non-partisan non-profit working on that particular issue. The fourth partner in this project would be non-profit charitable organizations themselves (with a strong bipartisan or nonpartisan record) which also work in the same topic area, which would provide the members of congress working on this issue with impartial, expert information.

Many of the ideas presented in the final session centered around improving internal communication in Congress or better facilitating constituent access to members. The winning project, called "Dear Colleague" focused on creating a system that would make it easier for legislators and their staff to share ideas and track support for pieces of legislation among themselves, which sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

Although our project was not chosen as the winner of the two-day event, I did have a great time, met a lot of passionate people who care about the future of democracy and saw some really interesting ideas about ways to improve the overall efficacy of Congress. I think my favorite thing about the project I worked on was that it put an emphasis on the importance of relationship building, not only between members of Congress from different political parties, but perhaps most importantly, between elected officials, citizens and NGO’s all around issues of major consequence. In my mind, such cooperation and collaboration is at the heart of a healthy civil society and the Ash Center and the Kennedy School are to be commended for convening this important exercise in democracy at the grassroots level.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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