My Origin Story

How do Members of Congress get things done?  You might guess that they write a bill and then work hard to get it signed into law.  But you'd be wrong. 

Bills are what get signed into law.  But letter writing is the way things really get done in the legislative branch.  

Letters-- typed on paper, printed, signed and then mailed-- are how Members build awareness, exert influence and exercise oversight on issues.  

A tumblr post I wrote back in October last year describes how Members of Congress do this (and here are some relevant recent examples).   Creating a portal that captures and tracks the letters the Members of Congress send-- a for policymaking letters-- was my first foray into how technology could be used to modernize the legislative branch.   I worked on the project through the NYU GovLab Solving Public Problems with Technology course which was led by former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck.  We called it Legisletters, and NYU ultimately built a Beta site, which scrapes and aggregates the existing letters that Members post to their own websites and makes them open and searchable.  The Beta is a great start to the project and NYU has been looking for additional funding to expand it and add functionality.  

Legisletters is my origin story-- the first project that sparked my drive to work on Tech Congress full time.  Because Tech Congress is not only a technology fellowship-- it's about building a 21st Century Congress writ large.  Tools like Legisletters are an important part of the work.  

Building on the Best of Congressional Fellowships

Building on the Best of Congressional Fellowships

Fellowships in Congress aren't anything new.  In fact, a number of the best programs (like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship) have been around for close to 40 years.   These programs-- including how each recruits, trains and places their fellows-- are models for Tech Congress. 

Congress and the Internet of Things

Darren Samuelsohn at Politico reveals what might not come as a surprise to folks in the tech community: Congress isn't ready for the Internet of Things. 

What I found, overall, is that the government doesn't have any single mechanism to address the Internet of Things or the challenges it’s presenting. Instead, the new networked-object technologies are covered by at least two dozen separate federal agencies — from the Food and Drug Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from aviation to agriculture — and more than 30 different congressional committees. Congress has written no laws or any kind of overarching national strategy specifically for the Internet of Things.

There was never a shortage of meetings or briefings about connected cars or wearables or drones while I was on Capitol Hill.  But the holistic concept of a new world of connected devices-- and the policy implications therein-- hasn't broken through, at least to the average House staffer.  I can't remember a single meeting or briefing about the IoT generally.  Samuelsohn points to a key structural challenge for government relating to the Internet of Things, and a problem relevant to technology policy writ-large.  

there’s an underlying mismatch between the way government handles issues and the way this new technology actually works. Government operates in silos — in Congress, committees often fight one another for jurisdiction harder than Democrats clash with Republicans; all the agencies, departments and commissions that make up the federal executive branch maintain separate fiefdoms for everything from agriculture, to defense, to transportation and energy. 
The IOT is precisely the opposite. It is a freewheeling system of integrated objects and networks, growing horizontally, destroying barriers so that people and systems that never previously communicated now can. Already, apps on a smartphone can log health information, control your energy use and communicate with your car — a set of functions that crosses jurisdictions of at least four different government agencies.

The obvious takeaway is that technology policy is increasingly diffuse.  Every agency and every committee-- transportation, energy, health, commerce-- needs to have staff that understand how tech works in order to make effective policy.  The difference between Congress and the federal agencies it's charged with authorizing and overseeing, however, is that the agencies are making a real effort to source that kind of talent.   Congress, on the other hand, is not.