#Hack4Congress: Can This Not-Just-for-Technologists Event Fix Congress?

With Congress' approval rating at an all-time low, the civic technology community is gathering to fix the dysfunction.

by / January 27, 2015

Most Americans would argue that Congress must be fixed -- and an event this weekend is asking political scientists, policy experts, technologists, architects and designers to help do just that.

Hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the OpenGov Foundation, the #Hack4Congress event will focus on how to improve the inner-workings of government via innovation, rather than using technology to replace government.

“The event was born over a concern that we’re living in a time where public dissatisfaction is palpable,” said Maggie McKinley, a fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “Innovation can fix the dysfunction. Very few organizations are actually working on legislative procedure where technology could help government work better.”

And folks are looking forward to taking a crack at fixing Congress:

 

 

“The most important purpose of #Hack4Congress is to demonstrate a commitment to doing better, serving better and listening better with the help of technology,” said Congressman Darrell Issa, R-CA, co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation. “And at the same time, demonstrating that the civic technology community is involved and looking for better results. After all, numbers matter in Washington. The more people who participate, the more Congress will realize this is a serious force to be reckoned with.”

The event brings strangers together from Jan. 30 through Feb. 1 to problem-solve, present innovative solutions and, as McKinley said, to “make the world better.”

“Congress has a whole lot of problems right now, and it’s at an all time low on its approval rating,” said Archon Fung, academic dean of the Kennedy School. “There’s been a lot of talk about the dysfunctions that it has. The range of solutions is a short list. This is an opportunity to open up the solution space. I have no idea what people will come up with, but we should create the space for people to think inventively.”

Solutions will be geared toward a range of issues, such as how laws are made, how members of Congress work every day, how Congressional members structure their offices, and how Congresspersons interact with one another. One of the hackathon's goals is to demonstrate that such fixes and changes can take place outside of an election, and citizens can participate in ways aside from casting a ballot.

“My definition of fixing Congress is when people and groups who have no money, who have no special entre to Capitol Hill, who can’t host a dinner for a congressman, have equal access to congresspeople and their staffs,” Issa said. “That’s my goal, and I believe we can achieve it.”

The event culminates with a presentation session before a panel of judges — practitioners, scholars and those active in the civic tech and data space. Judges evaluate the solutions and select the finalist, who will present the solution to high-level congressional representatives this spring.

“The most obvious success would be if one or several projects that are born in this hackaton end up really gaining traction and get big in some way,” Fung said. “But there’s also the intangible success of people being more civically engaged and people devoting their energy toward the legislative level.”

This spring, a similar hackathon will take place in the Washington, D.C.-area, and another event may be held in San Francisco in the future.

As for McKinley’s goals for this event: “Have people duplicate this event and give license to everyday folks,” she said. “They have a hand in improving their government. We don’t just vote and then disengage. We can, every day or every month, give a little back and get re-engaged as citizens again.”

The event is free and open to all backgrounds and expertise. Pre-registration is required.

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.