Connecting to Congress

Project ID: Connecting to Congress
Funding: NSF grant No. 0429452
Researchers: David Lazer (PI - Harvard University), Kevin Esterling (PI - UC Riverside), Jane Fountain (UMAss, Amherst), Michael Neblo (PI - Ohio State), Ines Mergel (Harvard University), Curt Ziniel (UC Riverside)
Collaborator: Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), Washington, DC
Status: In progress
Project website: C2C TeamRoom (password protected -- access only for research team)

The Internet has the potential to transform our democracy—a potential that has begun to receive substantial scholarly attention. This attention has focused on the potential transformational effects of the technology on civil society, and, in the political realm, how the Internet might transform political discourse.

Researchers have devoted little attention, however, to how the Internet might transform existing institutions for connecting citizens to elected officials. This relationship is the fundamental building block of a representative democracy, and it has come under increasing strain as our country has grown from a few million to a few hundred million; as congressional districts have swelled from a few tens of thousands to well over six hundred thousand; as the number of matters the state is involved in has multiplied; and as policy problems have grown more complex. Contemporary Washington politics is now almost exclusively the domain of entrepreneurial legislators, highly trained committee staff, legal counsel, agency heads, lobbyists, and expert policy analysts. Today, it is difficult for interested citizens to even understand the policy process, much less have their voice heard in it . As a consequence of this and other trends, citizens have become increasingly disengaged from the work of Congress.

The Internet offers a set of tools that might help to arrest this trend, and to fundamentally alter the level of participation of citizens in the consultative process with their Representatives. A well-designed Internet strategy by Members of Congress can provide citizens with information useful for understanding a policy as it develops, while also allowing citizens to interact more symmetrically with both their Member of Congress and with each other. Wisely used, the Internet can re-connect citizens and Congress.

Strikingly, this potential for change has largely been unrealized and unstudied. While there has been a considerable amount of scholarship on the impact of the Internet on government, governance, and society, we have identified no systematic research on how Members of Congress use or should use the Internet to provide information to their constituents.
This lack of scholarship is matched by a lack of progress by Members in using their websites. Figure 1 summarizes some of the features commonly used by Members of Congress. Notably, only a minority (37%) of Members provide the most minimal capacity to find out how they voted. Further, essentially no offices have interactive features such as e-townhalls, bulletin boards, and the like.
This lag is unsurprising, and significant. Members of Congress are accustomed to, and tend to be very good at, interacting with constituents face-to-face. Digital interaction, however, is inherently new terrain for many Members, and any new activity entails uncertainty and risk; and further, implementing and making effective use of innovations requires new knowledge and new operating procedures. As a consequence, adoption of web technologies is neither automatic nor effortless.

For an overview of Members of Congress' websites see:
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Concept & Design © Alexander Schellong