The Future of Communicating With Congress

Want a more responsive and trustworthy US Congress? Start with better communications. The OpenGov Foundation/Article One Technologies team are reinventing communications between people and government with serverless voice, SMS, and machine learning.

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The Future of Communicating With Congress

If you’ve ever called Congress, you likely had a less than satisfying experience. In fact, the chances are high that you never got through, or if you did, you reached a full voice mailbox. If your message was indeed received, whether you reached out by phone, mail, email, fax, or social media, the response—if any—probably arrived as an impersonal form letter which didn’t address your concerns or provide resolution. If this experience sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. Based on a recent poll by Pew Research, 97% of the American public believe Congress is not responsive to them.

On the other side of this problem, 94% of congressional staff say they don’t have the tools they need to be responsive. Since the 2016 election, incoming communication to congressional offices across all channels is up more than 1000 percent. Both sides of the situation are frustrated by the communications breakdown, and it has nothing to do with the current political party in charge. Congress operates as a 19th-century institution using 20th-century tools and work processes to try to solve 21st-century problems. This is a problem that’s been growing for years.

Democracy at Scale

I founded The OpenGov Foundation after working in the trenches as a congressional staffer from 2009 to 2013. I witnessed firsthand the fundamental breakdown in communications between Congress and the people that it exists to serve, and I knew there must be a better way. The entire notion of representative democracy depends on the people’s views being channeled into government policy by our representatives, and if we’re not able to engage in a secure and direct two-way conversation with our representatives at scale, the whole thing simply doesn't work.

Our mission at the OpenGov Foundation is to serve those who serve the people. Over the past year, with help from Twilio.org, we created Article One Technologies, the first cloud communications platform for government approved by the United States Congress. Article One enables elected officials to receive, understand, and respond quickly, effectively, and authentically to communications from their constituents.

A Broken System

Before we dive into how Article One works, it’s important to understand the system that we’re working with. The communications technology in use in congressional offices is, on average, 15 years or older. It predates Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones, as well as grassroots online advocacy.

Because of the aging telephonic infrastructure in the US Senate, voice mailboxes are capped at 300 messages, which can fill up in less than a second at times. A senator like Diane Feinstein, who has 40 million constituents, has a voice mailbox that is capped at 300 messages. Over in the House of Representatives, an elected official represents about 750,000 constituents, yet their voice mailbox capacity is as low as 35 messages. When aging infrastructure is completely overstressed like this, the majority of voices get silenced.

And the problems aren’t limited to legacy technology systems dealing with an overwhelming volume of calls and these legacy technology systems; Congressional offices just don't have the staff capacity to keep up. In the House of Representatives, there’s one congressional staffer for every 50,000 constituents. In a Senate office for a state like California, there’s one staffer for every 2.6 million constituents. These staffers are the ones in charge of channeling the voices of tens of millions of Americans into very complicated and fast-moving federal policy.

Modernizing Congress

Our goal with Article One is nothing short of modernizing Congress, rebuilding its systems and its technology, and removing all of those barriers that are preventing the congressional staffer on the frontline and ultimately your senator or representative from hearing what you are saying and doing something about it. In 2019, storage is virtually free, and there's no reason that artificial caps on voicemails should exist. Nobody should be rejected from having their voice heard just because of aging technology.

Using Twilio APIs, we’ve created a solution that encompasses:

  • Unlimited Bandwidth – using serverless architecture and cloud services, the system scales on demand.
  • Smart Automation – instead of requiring the input of a voicemail to be the human ear and hand, we can use speech-to-text technology to transcribe all of those voicemails automatically. We use IVR prompts to gather additional information such as zip code for identifying a constituent’s district.
  • Call Detection – since we can automatically detect when a call is from a mobile device, we can follow-up via SMS to gather additional information.

Since congressional offices are not in a position to rip out an entire, deeply entrenched legacy communication system and replace it with something new, we’re integrating with these legacy systems. By providing additional functionality that congressional offices don't have the capacity or the expertise to build, we’re helping congressional staffers work much more efficiently.

Check out exactly how it works in this demo with Aaron Ogle, The OpenGov Foundation’s Director of Product.

What’s Next

As we look at the future of communicating with Congress, we plan to expand on what we’ve started with voicemail. We’d like to see every incoming call go through the Article One system. With those calls, we want to start collecting analytics so that we can provide the Chiefs of Staff with insights on the communication that’s coming in from constituents. We are looking at adding SMS chats and bots as a way to communicate one-on-one with constituents. And finally, we’re excited about putting all of these elements together in unified communications, working with the Twilio Flex team to see if we can apply this solution to the congressional office context.