Visiting With Congress, Tech Policy, and Lessons Learned

Wow! We learned a lot from visiting with the U.S. Congress this week, by attending and demonstrating to the Congressional Internet Caucus at the annual State of the ‘Net conference.

But first: what is the CIC, and what is this conference? The CIC is the largest of the Congress’s many caucuses, and is focused on technology and policy issues, especially those related to the Internet. The annual meeting is a conference with the main purpose of informing the caucus’s member Representatives and Senators, their staffers, and other interested parties, and to enable presenters and attendees to discuss the top policy issues of concern to the caucus and its advisory council. The meeting also includes a small number of selected demonstrations of new technology relevant to these policy issues. Needless to say, we were honored (and a bit trepidatious) when we learned that we had been selected to demonstrate the alpha release of our state Digital Voter Registration System (DVRS).

And second: what did we do? Our goal of the demonstration was to show the use of the Web, and Web application technologies, and how they can be used to give citizens greater access to and transparency around state and local governments’ services of maintaining voter registration lists. And a key message was that the use of agile development technology and methods can be used to create government applications at a small fraction of the cost of legacy system development. We’ll be saying more about our DVRS, and how we demonstrate it, and what we want to accomplish with our DVRS project (briefly: build a base of open-source software that states can use to implement a real DVRS), but here is what we leaned.

My 5 main take-ways are:

1. Congress-folks and their staff actually do think that current election technology problems really do need fixing. They are aware of many ways in which technology and policy intertwine around election reform, and election reform (including technology) may well be on the Federal legislative agenda this year.

2. They believe that technology improvements have much more value if, in addition to "being a better mousetrap" they also provide accountability and transparency so that citizens can see the operation of their government. These values are part of larger issue about e-government and transparency that some folks anticipate will be part of the new administration’s change to Federal government.

3. In fact, for many people, the most policy-relevant part of the demo was the auditing, and our description of on-going work to include in the DVRS a Web-publishing capability for real-time disclosure of all activity in the DVRS (subject to privacy constraints of course).

4. Also for many people, accountability to citizens is a key value. The log publishing function is part of that, but just as valuable is the function that allows citizens to do on-line tracking of their registration requests and (in later releases) all activities relevant to their status after they become registered.

5. We had a harder time getting across the policy issues of the current level of effort required by government officials in voter registration, and the scope for errors or backlogs to create barriers between citizens and their franchise.  I guess that’s a more abstract point! or at least with less visceral impact than seeing wholly new capabilities for tracking and public audit.

Well, by now I expect I’ve lost almost all readers except the die-hard election policy wonks! So I’ll just close by repeating what great learning experience it was, the value of the feedback we got, and that the learning is helping prepare for similar engagement with the government folks that are  our main constituency — the state and local level election officials who manage our country’s elections.


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