Missing: A Digital Playbook for Local Elected Officials
In just the last two weeks, newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has gained half a million new Twitter followers, zooming from 1.6M to 2.1M. On Instagram, another platform where she excels at sharing interesting glimpses of her life as an activist-turned-newly-successful-politician, Ocasio-Cortez now has 1.6M followers, putting her in the top ranks of politicians using the platform world-wide. As David Perry wrote recently in Pacific Standard magazine, Ocasio-Cortez is perfecting “the politics of digital intimacy….She is using the immediacy and ephemeral nature of live chats and ‘stories’ to intensify and expand her networks of political support. Her followers feel as if they are being invited into her life, participating with her as she enters the halls of Congress as an outsider, sharing in her triumphs and cheering as she overcomes obstacles.”
For Ocasio-Cortez, this is all doing wonders for her national political profile and undoubtedly will add to her ability to influence current debates. But should we hold her up as a model? Especially for local and state elected officials with much lower profiles who want to be better connected with their constituents, does it make sense to tell them to live-stream themselves cooking dinner or to try to draw attention to themselves by picking visible fights with their critics, the way Ocasio-Cortez has made hay from attacks on her from conservatives? What, if anything, should run-of-the-mill elected officials do to improve how they engage with the public online?
A few weeks after the November election, I got an email from a longtime nonpartisan good government activist. She told me that she was looking at putting together some training sessions for an incoming class of state elected officials, and that they had expressed “a desire to learn about technology, including website and software platforms, that can help them communicate more effectively with their constituents.” She added, “Many of them want to host town halls and to be more present and responsive to their constituents on an ongoing basis.” She asked for recommendations.
I wrote back with some quick notes about the work that the DC-based OpenGov Foundation is doing to help congressional offices deal with the deluge of incoming phone messages they get and the work that PopVox does in helping congressional offices monitor online sentiment from validated constituents. And I added that many legislators used “tele-townhall” services like i-Constituent or Stone’s Phones to invite constituents into a virtual meeting, noting that this wasn’t a tool I thought she should recommend because they turn the face-to-face relationship of a communal event into something a politician can control from the top down.
But I wasn’t too happy with this answer. Is it possible that below the level of Congress, there are no obvious platforms, services or guides to point to for elected officials who want to “be more present and responsive to their constituents on an ongoing basis”? Is their only option to use big consumer platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which certainly make it easy to communicate but which also bring complex questions about privacy, data usage and toxic behavior by many users (of which a whole separate article could and should be written)? Also, beyond “constituent relationship management,” are there any ideas for how elected officials can do more beyond logging calls and complaints from voters and build community with their fellow citizens?
Alas, when I posed the activist’s question to Seamus Kraft, the executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, and Marci Harris, the CEO and co-founder and director of POPVOX, two nonpartisan organizations with years of experience at the intersection of tech and democracy, they reinforced my sense that there really is no playbook for local electeds interested in digital engagement. Kraft recommended Article One, his for-profit spinoff, which is a cloud-communications platform designed to integrate with the constituent relationship management tools currently used by Congressional offices, and which vastly expands their capacity to take in voicemails and SMS messages and generates helpful data analytics to assist staff in sifting the signals from all the noise. He also offered pointers to a number of experienced Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle and to nonpartisan organizations like his, including the Congressional Management Foundation, Lincoln Network, the Congressional Institute, Democracy Fund, and the Congressional Data Coalition.
And Harris, who like Kraft is a former congressional staffer, responded with a long memo that became this terrific Medium piece explaining for Members of Congress and their teams the wide array of tech tools that House and Senate offices are allowed to use for things like managing their communications with constituents. Some of her recommendations, particularly on tele-townhall services, are certainly applicable to state and local elected officials, and she is right to point out that such tools especially are useful for representatives (and constituents) who live in geographically dispersed districts where it make take hours to drive to a physical town hall.
But Congress is just 541 representatives (435 House plus six nonvoting members, plus 100 Senators). What about the more than 7,300 elected state legislators? Or the more than 500,000 elected officials serving in more than 87,000 local, city and county representative bodies? What tools and platforms should they use?
A search on the website run by the National Conference of State Legislators turns up little of use. Under the category of telecommunications and information technology, you can find discussions of things like how officials are supposed to handle email and social media particularly as relates to keeping official records, or the captioning rules for webcasts, or how a few states are letting constituents testify remotely, or how states are using tech to handle public records requests. There’s even a discussion of what artificial intelligence portends for society. But nothing on how state legislators might better use tech to engage with their constituents.
NYU’s GovLab exists to help train a new generation of government administrators in digital methods, but here too I struck out. Over on GovLab’s “Network of Innovators” Discourse portal, there have been a few limited discussions of interactive tools for enhancing engagement between elected officials and constituents. For example, here are some good examples of platforms that enable citizens to crowdsource proposals to legislatures—but all of them are in use outside the United States, since no legislature here is formally interested in taking crowdsourced legislative ideas seriously. The one tool referenced in that thread that is a domestic platform, Granicus Speak-Up, is designed for officials and agencies in charge of service delivery, not elected reps.
That’s not surprising—unlike legislators, city managers and agencies have an ongoing need to engage the public efficiently and effectively (and even budgets to pay for that) and thus it makes sense that solutions for that user base abound. As Ben Berkowitz, the founder and CEO of Seeclickfix, one of the best-in-class service delivery and constituent engagement platforms, told me, “Gone are the days of repeated emails and phone calls to public works that land in a black hole. Modern constituents expect to be able to transparently document their service request via their smartphone. They also expect to be kept in the loop as the request is resolved and be able to be kept in the loop on their neighbor’s requests. Transparency + accountability leads to engaged and constructive constituents that trust their leaders.” But being responsive to service requests makes less sense for elected officials who have large constituencies and who don’t directly oversee local or state agencies responsible for things like plowing the streets.
The Civic Tech Field Guide that Matt Stempeck and I have been building here at Civic Hall has a number of categories, including “ideation,” “issue reporting” and “public input and engagement” tools that might offer local elected officials ideas for platforms that they can use to be more responsive to constituents, but none of these hit the bulls-eye either. Ideation tools like Consul are being used around the world, especially by cities that do participatory budgeting, but crowdsourcing and up-voting ideas is just one of several kinds of constituent engagement. And our list of “civic forums” offers a number of platforms where elected officials might find it useful to set up shop to engage, with only one problem. Outside of the handful of local forums like Front Porch Forum in Vermont, none of these sites can claim the critical mass of users that are already available to legislators via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
A few years ago, Change.org took a run at developing a two-way communications platform (Change Politics) for aggregating conversations between specific elected officials and their voters, but gave up after less than a year. And AskThem.io, an open-source platform built by David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation (a Civic Hall member), that also sought to create a two-way conversation, has struggled to gain traction. The folks at Columbia’s American Assembly program have started experimenting with using Pol.is, a group deliberation tool, to help local officials engage the public, as Jessica McKenzie reported for Civicist last year. That’s at least one example of how interactive tech could be used to enhance face-to-face townhall meetings. And if all an elected official wants is one easy way to demonstrate that they’re tech savvy, using a question-filtering tool like Sli.do (which allows audience members with a smartphone to submit and vote on questions in real-time) to make their public meetings more engaging would be a smart move.
But twenty years into the Digital Age, state legislatures and lower-level offices have basically done nothing, beyond giving officials web pages and email addresses. Here in New York state, senators have an award-winning website with a number of interactive features, including the ability to start petitions about bills or issues they are supporting. Those petitions have an innovative feature—if a constituent of a different senator signs, that senator gets a notification. One would think that this tool might be used by New York senators eager to build support for their ideas, but recently, when I asked state senator Shelley Mayer about the tool, she said that Democrats hadn’t made use of it because they didn’t trust the Senate website from all the years that it was run by Republicans.
If you’ve read this far, you are probably saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal? Local electeds should just use Facebook to be more accessible to their constituents.” And it could be that as a result of Facebook’s colonization of civic life online, there is simply not enough oxygen left for any other entrant to the arena. But as much as Facebook is the shortest path to the largest number of people, elected officials who are sincere about engaging ALL of their constituents should recognize that about 30% of adult Americans don’t use it. Holding a townhall meeting on Facebook or, as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is demonstrating so effectively, sharing intimate live videos on Instagram, is not the same thing as being accessible to all of the people who live in one’s district. And do we really want public officials to be driving traffic to a private company as part of their duty as public servants?
With all that said, maybe Ocasio-Cortez’s approach will be more fruitful than expected. All too often, communications between elected officials and constituents is highly transactional. One is making a demand, the other is offering a supply. By building a relationship centered on a more emotional and personal basis, Ocasio-Cortez is inviting her followers to become something more. Indeed, she is imploring them to become participants. So, just as she is blazing a fresh path and inviting imitators (hello, Elizabeth Warren, is that a beer you are drinking?), Ocasio-Cortez may also be building demand for something we don’t yet have: a digital public square worth participating in.