Relaunching America: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Disruption

A group of co-founders shut themselves in a sweltering, dimly lit room and were determined not to see the light of day until they had released their new system to the world. The beta system was currently in the market and users were anxious to see their new release. They had spent the entire summer scripting their platform, arguing over precise features to include, and deliberating over the future implications of this version. They were close to a release date, and failure was not an option. The room was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the year was 1787.

This story may have conjured visions of the Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, toiling in a Los Altos bedroom, Paul Allen and Bill Gates’ scripting marathons in Harvard’s Aiken Lab, or Zuckerberg’s hacking and face mashing in Kirkland House. However, this story refers to a different collection of founders – now we call them the Founding Fathers. The users were the citizens of newly independent United States of America. The beta release – also known as Articles of Confederation – had become insufficient to meet users’ needs. Now the stakes were high. More than their financial futures and reputations were on the line. Their very lives, and the lives of 3 million citizens hung in the balance. They weren’t just innovating a product or service, they were innovating a system of representative governance.

The Founding Fathers followed a proven tech startup model of learning from others’ mistakes, refining the best ideas of early adopters, and creating something familiar, yet completely new and disruptive. Think Google, iPhone, Tesla, etc. The early product launched by the French, Romans, and Greeks provided excellent user testing and case studies, while thought leaders like Montesquieu and Locke provided some key insight for experimentation.

However, just like any high-performing startup, over time this governing system has experienced growing pains. The user base has grown approximately 10,000% since that hot Philadelphian summer, while user satisfaction toward elected representatives – particularly Members of Congress – has remained remarkably low. The executive leadership and board of directors have been able to increase the opportunities for user participation incrementally over the past two centuries; however, as technology has dramatically improved over the past two decades and the ability to send communication has increased exponentially, the elected official’s ability to absorb, respond, and leverage these tools has remained relatively static.

Technology’s rapid development, and Congress’ slow adaptation, has crippled a system that is predicated on the idea of citizen engagement. Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” illustrates the power of network effects that bolsters online startups. Ultimately, the system functions more effectively as more users join the process.

According to a recent Congressional Management Foundation survey, over one-third of congressional staffers feel their office spends too little time on online communications. At the same time, 64 percent of senior staff believes Facebook is “a somewhat or very important tool for understanding constituents’ views and opinions.” The number is 42 percent for Twitter. Congressional offices seem to understand the importance of using new technologies, but they are unwilling or simply unable to maximize the potential of these innovative technologies. This story becomes even more concerning when looking into the future.

The United States is witnessing a growing disconnect between elected officials and its next generation of citizens. As the number of social technologies continues to grow, the connection between Members of Congress and younger constituents continues to shrink. The 2012 Institute of Politics Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service found that “young people of all ages, races and political persuasions care deeply about their community and their country… [However] young people continue to lose faith in the institutions and the leaders elected to govern our country and shape their future. And now, through this project, we have learned that potentially millions of young people will stay home on November 6, not participate in the election — choosing instead other paths of civic engagement, or nothing at all.” These young Americans are living their lives online through technology, and effective engagement depends on the ability to connect in this new digital world. They care about their country and they want to be involved if their elected officials can learn to speak their language.

This year I founded Connected Congress and held a bipartisan tech series for Members of Congress and senior staff on the Hill. The goal was to help Members understand not only what technology is available, but also how they can use technology more effectively. (http://ConnectedCongress.org) With over 20 speakers from Google, Facebook, Twitter, think tanks, House, and Senate, I realized perhaps the future is not so bleak. Not all Members of Congress are opposed to adapting technological advances into their offices. In fact, digital staff, administrators, and a handful of tech-minded Members are trying to influence behavior in the institution.

In a recent interview, Congressman Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, described this “technology-centered approach” as “disruptive to the government bureaucracy and many in Congress because it demands experimentation, data-driven analysis and actually listening to our users — the American people — about how to make government work better for them. That’s why social media and innovation are so central to my work: we in Congress do not have all the answers, but we can have a relentless drive to adapt technology to let taxpayers re-engage with government on their own terms.”

Now it’s our turn. My goal is to channel some of the innovation our system was founded on over two centuries ago to disrupt this market of representative and participatory democracy.

More Reading

Congress’ Wicked Problem. Lorelei Kelly, New America Foundation
http://oti.newamerica.net/publications/policy/congress_wicked_problem

Can Congress Work Like A Tech Startup?
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120509/03041418839/can-congress-work-like-tech-startup.shtml

Does Anyone in Congress Get Technology? Joshua Lamel
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-lamel/does-anyone-in-congress-get-technology_b_1465743.html

‘Virtual Congress’ Would Weaken Deliberative Process – Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.)
http://www.congresslink.org/print_expert_virtualcongress.htm

Congressional Management Foundation
http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects

Congressional Management Foundation: Communicating with Congress Project
http://www.congressfoundation.org/projects/communicating-with-congress

Dawn of a revolution (Bill Gates at Harvard)
http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/09/dawn-of-a-revolution/

Connected Congress series highlights struggle of digital staffers. Colby Hochmuth
http://fedscoop.com/connected-congress-series-highlights-struggle-of-digital-staffers/

Connected Congress: Tech for Members
http://ConnectedCongress.org

Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP) Public Opinion Project Survey
http://www.iop.harvard.edu/survey