This article details the programmatic process of exploring the potential of SIDE events and the Civic Voice Archive. We have decided to sunset this facet of our work, but provide insights on what we and others can take from this research and outreach.
Rapidly changing and unpredictable environments, a global pandemic, and growing calls for participatory governance have exposed inefficiencies in the U.S. legislative branch. But while technological advancement continues to accelerate, Congress (and the federal government in general) has lagged in adopting new tools.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Congress to adapt to remote and digital workspaces and pass an emergency measure allowing for virtual congressional deliberations, including remote committee procedures, proxy voting, and connecting with constituents via Zoom. In addition, the E-hopper system was introduced as a secure email system for congressional documents. Both of these shifts opened Congress to updated digital workflows and led to more meaningful civic engagement.
“The outdated systems of Congress have constrained the use of valuable civic feedback in the deliberative process of policymaking. Three-ring binders and old metal file cabinets symbolize this paper-based tradition.” (Lorelei Kelly, “Civic Voice During COVID-19,” 2020)
In response, OEDP partnered with Lorelei Kelly at Georgetown’s Beeck Center to pilot the SIDE Framework around environmental issues. SIDE, which stands for Stakeholder, Individuals, Data, Evidence, takes advantage of shifting digital norms and presents a compromise between Congress' conventional standard feedback mechanisms--open participation town halls and institutionally bound field hearings. SIDE was designed to support members in taking actions informed by a) evidence and b) widespread consultation with interested and knowledgeable parties.
Additionally, we began conceptualizing what a Civic Voice Archive could look like, working in tandem with SIDE Events. We envisioned the Civic Voice Archive as a way of connecting local congressional districts to federal legislative lawmaking, providing a streamlined and accessible method for engaging with community data. It was designed as a repository for authentic community input (potentially via SIDE Events).
As with many pilots, however, where we ended up is not where we expected when we began. We had hoped to organize a series of SIDE events, and found indications of support and general enthusiasm from a handful of Congressional offices, we were able to secure an event and find support with only one Congressional office. In the process, we’ve learned a lot about partnering with Congressional offices, co-designing new tools, and challenges inherent in the political process. These lessons have led us to decide to sunset our SIDE and Civic Voice Archive work for now.
In the spirit of transparent and open documentation practices, we’re excited to share insights we’ve gained with the hopes that others can build on this work in the future. We also welcome questions and conversations from anyone seeking to pilot similar projects. Please email Emelia Williams, our Research & Policy Associate, if you’d like to chat!
Our Approach and Assumptions
Upon taking on this project, a few assumptions informed our decisions during research and outreach: First, upon the wave of congressional modernization catalyzed by the pandemic, there was an appetite for a more modern approach to civic voice and engagement. Second, we could build on Congressional offices’ use of virtual and hybrid environments. And third, the political climate—growing polarization, calls for representation, and a Democratic majority—was conducive to experimentation and change.
In Fall 2020, we began researching outreach to Congressional offices using two scoping questions:
- Who is committed to environmental issues and/or climate resilience?
- Who is thinking about the potential of technology and data as public goods in U.S. democracy?
We looked into representatives’ membership in caucuses, committees, and voting records on environmental policy, as well as environmental bills they co-/sponsored. To understand how engaged they were at the district level, we also asked:
- Who is signaling that they are actively engaging their constituents?
- Who is holding events outside of institutionally required spaces like committee hearings?
- Who is delivering messages outside of party-sanctioned formats?
- Who seems to respond enthusiastically to their constituents? To non-typical media questions?
We attempted to paint a holistic understanding of Members’ engagement styles, noting previous events with local universities, community centers, labor unions, and nonprofits. Watching video footage of these events and reading media recaps (including on social media) gave us a better sense of how meetings were perceived, whether they were useful to the average constituent, what moderation methods members used, and how members’ communication lined up with their voting records. This research illuminated where and how involved Members were within their districts. For more on this research process, see our blog Engaging Congressional Members in Modernizing Frameworks.
We initially conducted email outreach to six Congressional staff offices, and received positive responses, though no partnerships resulted. We also published a series of blogs outlining the conceptual basis for SIDE Events and the Civic Voice Archive, including The Act of Legitimizing: Political theory and context for a Civic Voice Archive and Building a Civic Voice Archive. In January 2021, we conducted outreach to seven more offices, and held a few follow-up calls, but again were unable to establish any firm partnerships. The January 6th attack on the US Capital was top of mind for Congressional members at this point and their capacity for testing new models was low.
In Spring and Summer 2021, we initiated a communications campaign to raise awareness of SIDE and its possibilities. A Twitter chat with Lorelei Kelly and Natalie Ward of the Beeck Center focused on technological opportunities to strengthen democracy and the potential of SIDE events and the Civic Voice Archive. Three use cases explored how a Civic Voice Archive could support existing legislation, new legislation, and connect local and federal issues for proposed legislation. And a series of future narratives imagined how these civic tools could be used to support the Klamath Dam restoration and removal project. These fictional pieces set in the near future envisioned a possible reality within a system that values and connects civic voice and environmental data.
In Fall 2021, we restarted our research and outreach efforts, since it wasn’t a major election year, and things had become marginally calmer post-Jan 6 attack. We also began outreach to local organizations within Members’ districts with the hopes that their involvement would ensure SIDE events would respond to local goals and capacities, and that Members would see the direct benefit of piloting this type of constituent engagement. We noticed more interest among these local organizations than in Congressional offices, and identified several promising partners in the Atlanta and Baltimore areas.
After another promising but ultimately unsuccessful call with a Congressional staffer from an office ostensibly focused on Congressional modernization, we decided to reflect on our efforts and ultimately concluded it was time to “sunset” this pilot.
What We Learned in the Process
Three major lessons are worth mentioning from this work:
- While some members are interested in Congressional modernization, the promise of new tools are often eclipsed by current events and election cycles. In the last two years, Members had to prioritize fighting for basic rights, addressing new crises, or campaigning for more long-term environmental, climate, and civic tech work. In political climates such as this (and especially during election years), pursuing radical changes in democratic processes can be an uphill challenge. We would urge others to thoughtfully consider political context, as well as benefits to specific Member’s agendas.
We assumed that the wave of congressional modernization signaled an appetite for a digitized approach to civic engagement. While this might be true, digitization was responding to a crisis that the members themselves were also experiencing and responding to. Technology adoption requires human, financial, and logistical capacities, which were expanding more slowly than we expected—many offices might have been using Zoom for the first time. Indeed, Congress only obtained an enterprise Zoom license in July 2020. Considering the societal and political shifts of 2020 and 2021, many Congressional offices were merely trying to put out fires and adapt, instead of radically innovating. The silver lining is that Congress raced up the learning curve on tech (i.e., proxy voting on Zoom), though ironically, this setback accelerated the possibilities to move forward on our original task of the institution—to experiment with new, more inclusive methods in lawmaking. We were often competing for attention with COVID19, a presidential election, an insurrection at the Capitol, and in 2022, another election cycle rife with disinformation and contested outcomes. Great innovation can originate from a crisis or monumental shift, but not before people and institutions have their footing to resume their daily workflows - or initiate new ones. In this case, assuming that a crisis-induced shift signaled a desire for change disregarded the necessity and desire for stability in the shifting societal and political tides.
- New tools will have greater efficacy and chances of success when they are co-designed with Members and their staff. Using the SIDE framework with a Member will require co-design and re-design of some aspects of the event to fit the specific needs of the Member and their staffers.
The collaborative design of tech and tools for better public integration with government processes is not a new finding, but is especially pertinent to this pilot. Co-designing a use of the SIDE framework needs to be temporally aligned with the Members’ specific goals, upcoming and sponsored legislation, and team capacity, as well as staff capacity at both the district and DC level. The efficacy of a readymade tool like SIDE relies on its ability to be adapted to the needs of the Member, thus some element of co-design needs to be a part of the early workflow between organization and Congressional office.
- From the perspective of an intermediary organization, conducting outreach to Congressional offices and local organizations within the districts takes a considerable amount of capacity and time in order to ensure buy-in at scale. It might be more prudent for intermediary organizations (e.g., nonprofits and research institutions) to present their research, knowledge, and skills to local organizations, and for the local organizations to then conduct outreach to their Members in Congress. Alternatively, the intermediary organization needs to have increased capacity to take on a project like this. Look to the work of POPVOX and the House Natural Resources Committee in supporting community participation to develop the Environmental Justice for All Act for an example on the level of capacity and effort needed to utilize civic voice in tandem with data to create evidence and test new technology. This innovative work is detailed in the A Community Shapes Environmental Justice Legislation report, published by Lorelei Kelly and the Beeck Center.
OEDP continues to work toward many of the goals outlined by the SIDE and Civic Voice Archive, but in different ways. As of writing, this is taking shape in two ways: (1) creating more data-driven dialogues between communities and government e.g., our Environmental Dataset Re-Mix workshops and Brain Trusts, and (2) creating governance feedback loops within data infrastructures, e.g. our Community Data Hubs prototype. We are still exploring ways to create more generative spaces at the interface between the public and government staffers and agencies. There is a critical need for more meaningful and sustained conversations between the public and the various levels of government, but our focus thus far has been on researching opportunities for environmental data and participation within local government systems (for more on this, see our opportunity brief on this topic). We are also exploring what governance feedback loops could look like within a local collaborative data infrastructure with our Community Data Hubs prototype. We are asking questions like: What would it look like, technically, for government to work collaboratively with community to understand and use environmental data? What platform features can be designed to mechanize accountability, use data as evidence, or respond to community campaigns? What does a positive feedback loop look like between communities and governments using environmental data?
We hope that others explore the goals of this project that are outside of our current scope, including the need for tools that aid in transferring information and institutional knowledge within Congress, further research on alternative ways for constituent voice to be entered into the Congressional record, and for more work to be done to create machine-readable, searchable, and taggable information resources and infrastructures within Congress. We have provided a resource list below for further exploration of these topics.
This is a list of useful articles and resources to guide your understanding and implementation of the SIDE Framework and Civic Voice Archive.
- A Community Develops Data Resources with Congress
- A SIDE Event Playbook for Members of Congress and Their Communities
- The Act of Legitimizing: Political theory and context for a Civic Voice Archive
- Building a Civic Voice Archive.
- Shape Structure Share: a Roadmap to Digital Public Infrastructure in US Democracy
- Recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (final report will be published in 2023)