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When You Call Your Congressperson, Do They Listen?

The OpenGov Foundation has conducted human-centered research to identify pain points in communications between constituents and congressional representatives, and is using tech to make sure voicemails matter.

The OpenGov Foundation, an apolitical nonprofit that develops open source software products for government, is using human-centric research and design to improve communication between elected officials and those they represent.

After Donald Trump surprisingly won the 2016 presidential election, many elected officials found their offices inundated with phone calls and other correspondence from the public. During this deluge it was not uncommon for those calls to go unanswered and, ultimately, unheard. Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, said his group identified this in the wake of the election and initiated a user-centric research sprint. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, user-centric research means studying the experiences of actual users, which seems simple enough but is just now becoming a rapidly evolving tool in technologies developed for government.

What user-centric research meant for the OpenGov Foundation’s project, which has been dubbed From Voicemails to Votes, is that developers spent four months studying 20 congressional offices, spending time within them and interviewing staffers who worked there. The goal was to get an accurate idea of ways that better tech could improve the situation.

What this research uncovered was troubling, Kraft said. Although means of communication had evolved — along with constituents’ expectations for them — congressional offices were still using older technologies. They were essentially relying on voicemail boxes that quickly become clogged with messages, rather than texts, emails or other more advanced technologies.

“Ninety-four percent of congressional staff say they don’t have the tech to do the job,” Kraft said, “and I want to meet that other 6 percent.”

There were myriad communications issues, but the OpenGov Foundation started by targeting the phone-based engagement process, which Kraft said was easy to measure and was also getting worse. Congress has institutional technologists in its employ, but they had not attempted to solve this issue. So, the OpenGov Foundation’s team set about developing a tool that leverages Google’s voice transcription technology to automate voicemails and make them easier to store and assess.

Currently, this tool is being tested in seven pilot offices belonging to a diverse range of politicians, including members of both parties, as well as representatives from both rural and urban areas. The OpenGov Foundation, Kraft said, is also in the process of negotiating licensing agreements to take the tech from the seven offices to about 365 later this year.

The work is not likely to stop with just the phone improvements. Kraft said the user-centric research found a need for better social media engagement and for tools that would allow people to text in opinions. It also found that the phone-based engagement problems exist at all levels of government, including cities, states and agencies, such as the FCC.

A natural question in these polarized and chaotic times is whether receiving more phone calls and understanding the opinions within them stands to change elected officials’ stances. That, however, is not the goal of this work, at least not entirely.

The OpenGov Foundation acknowledges that there are policy stances — often high-profile ones — on which politicians simply will not budge, regardless of how often they hear from constituents who disagree. The idea behind improving lines of communication is that perhaps constituents and their representatives can find common ground elsewhere, or even have a respectful conversation about who believes what and why, ultimately leading to increased faith in an elected official that will improve the quality of future interactions.

“Right now we’re living in a moment of real frustration, distrust and democratic desperation, not just in the public but in the business community, the advocacy community, and in those who serve in government,” Kraft said. “To have something like this, which is an actual road map for turning this around, is one of the most exciting outcomes for the work we’re doing.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.