5 online ways for Congress to be more transparent

It’s time for Washington to catch up with the rest of America. As people share Facebook and Instagram pictures of every latte they drink, skyline they view and family event they attend,  the expectation of personal privacy is quickly becoming  a quaint relic of the past. We’re living in an instantly connected era: We’re becoming accustomed to knowing what’s going on. We expect to know what’s going on. And, while too much personal information can be annoying,  nowhere is the demand for openness more appropriate than in government.

The push for transparency in conducting the public’s business is not new, nor is pushback from Congressional representatives and government agencies. But with contemporary technology, it’s easier than ever to be open, and harder than ever to justify not letting the public know what’s happening.

Recently, the Sunlight Foundation suggested five technologically enabled ways for Congress to be more transparent:

1. Create an Online Guest Book

Starting the day they they were sworn in, lobbyists, well-wishers, and constituents have streamed into member offices. While visitors to the White House are listed online, the same isn’t true for visitors to congressional offices. At their front doors, representatives should set up an electronic guest book where visitors attending policy-related meetings are encouraged to type in their names, briefly summarize why they’re visiting, and say whether they’re a federally registered lobbyist. That information should be posted on the member’s website.

In addition, members should post online their just completed daily schedule of official activities, as maintained by their scheduler, at the end of each day. It will help people better understand what they do on a daily basis.

2. Who’s Who in the Office

Most meetings that take place in a congressional office are with staff, not the representative. Each staffer is the member’s point person for a particular topic. All offices should post online a list of staff working in the office and the issue areas they handle. (Some already do this.) This info is already available from private companies for a fee, but it should be available for everyone.

3. Say Where They Stand

Representatives receive a crushing amount of letters and email from constituents. In response, elected officials rely on form letters to share their (often nuanced) policy views on important issues. Instead of engaging in a massive paper chase, there’s a better approach.

In Germany, the non-profit Parliament Watch has developed a model where responses from members of parliament are posted online. While protecting the privacy of constituents, members of congress should do likewise. All letters to constituents regarding policy should be posted online in a searchable, easy-to-find location, and constituents should be encouraged to check the webpage first. If done properly, there’s a great chance that constituents will share the responses on social media, helping to spread the word.

4. Publish Official Reports and Correspondence

Members of congress send and receive official letters and reports from agencies all the time. It’s part of how they engage in government oversight. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to see when a representative is working on our behalf (such as when a letter is sent to an agency) or is gathering information to help make an informed decision (like that contained in a CRS report).

Most of the time, these reports are of public interest and do not contain confidential material. They should be published online as a matter of course, with limited, appropriate exceptions. Priority should be given to reports and letters from agencies on issues of public interest, online publication of CRS Reports, and “Dear Colleague” letters.

5. Ask for Comments on Legislation

When most people think of congress, they think of legislation. Representatives introduce legislation all the time, but the feedback process is pretty limited. Some representatives have been experimenting with feedback mechanisms. Rep. Issa launched the Madison Project, for example, so the public can comment (and respond to other comments) on legislation. Some members (like Zoe Lofgren) have used Reddit to gather feedback. There’s no best way to do this, but representatives that introduce legislation should provide an easy way to receive feedback and allow the public to see and comment upon those comments.