Survival planning for an anti-prepper Congress
And the rest of the week that was.
You’re reading Slow Build, a weekly newsletter on tech & society by Nancy Scola.
Let’s talk this fine Friday about the United States Congress — or, rather, the possibility of the absence of one.
One of the realizations that comes from studying Congress up close is that it operates with a sense of invincibility. That became painfully clear in the wake of the attacks of September 11th, when the institution did little to make sure that any future attack wouldn’t completely destabilize the government. And the response to COVID, too, has been a reminder that Congress doesn’t exactly like to disaster plan.
Why? I dug into this around the start of the pandemic, and found that it’s questions of both power — some solutions devolve control away from congressional leadership, and the powers-that-be don’t like that — and of missing incentives. A body made up of nearly 600 largely independent offices and where six years, the length of a Senate term, counts as forever just isn’t designed to think about its long-term collective future.
The pandemic, though, did force Congress to change some. It had little choice. The idea that the only way bills could be submitted was by putting it in a wood hopper on the House floor or co-sponsored through physical signature suddenly seemed ridiculous when simply standing next to another human being could spread a deadly contagion.
And the pandemic, too, jumpstarted an idea that had been floating around Congress. Could it benefit from the same kind of “digital services” team that the executive branch had created when the initial failure of HealthCare.gov made it clear that technological limitations were stopping the presidential administration from doing its job?
Some months into the crisis, a House body called the Select Committee on Modernization teamed up with the outside group TechCongress — whose executive director, Travis Moore, I spoke to this fall — to do a trial run of a team that could help with tasks like creating an efficient ‘e-hopper’ or improving the collection of digital signatures, calling it the Congressional Digital Services Pilot.
This week, after about a year of experimentation, that team came out with a new report on what it learned. The document’s 25-pages long, but one finding in particular jumps out.
It has to do with survival.
Now, government digital services teams, which exist not only in the U.S. but in the UK, Canada, Italy, Finland, and beyond, generally serve to streamline whatever the essential job of the institution they’re serving already is — for example, working with the U.S. Treasury to creating a neat website to help Americans get the full benefits of the child tax credit, a la the new ChildTaxCredit.gov promoted in appearances by Vice President Kamala Harris this week:
But buried deep in the report is the idea that a permanent Congressional Digital Services team could help Congress do a job it generally seems like it should do but doesn’t: planning for its continued existence.
Given that Congress is in many ways a loosely connected set of offices, a shared digital services team could help knit them together a bit better. To pick one example from the report, a team like that could help committees as a whole understand how the Committed on Armed Services used digital collaboration tools to speed the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, as it did this last time around.
And because a Congressional Digital Services team would exist, at least to some degree, in the spaces between all those other offices, it has the opportunity to think more holistically than those other shops do.
Including about simply making sure there is a Congress.
Congress, the report points out, does, like a of other institutions, have what’s known as the “continuity of operations planning” group, but it also concludes that there’s a gap between what that group does and how it gets shared through the rest of Capitol Hill. And so, it argues, Congress could benefit from having some mechanism within it that produces ready-to-go disaster planning documents, or “tear sheets,” which would address:
Processes to respond to the disaster or crisis.
Essential tasks and technologies.
Individuals responsible for essential tasks and the technologies they need to complete them.
Critical tools required to complete the processes and deliver essential services to the institution.
And beyond that, “Congress could benefit from a centralized crisis communications organization.” Such a group “could help convey essential messages to the public, receive input, and facilitate inter-institutional operations with cutting-edge communication tools.”
Even with the pandemic, there’s been little concrete to suggest that members of Congress are any better at thinking about the over-the-horizon viability of the institution than they were pre-March 2020. And that wasn’t all that much better than it was in the aftermath of September 11th. One member of Congress at the time recalled how he tried going around to talk to his colleagues about making sure the House could survive a next attack. He told me about approaching an influential senior member of his party:
“I said, ‘You know, we don’t have a valid process for replacing House members if we’re all killed by a terrorist attack.’
He said, ‘What do I care? I’ll be dead.’”
A Congressional Digital Services team could help take that need-to-care out of the hands of individual members.
The Chief Administrative Officer of the House recently announced that she is taking the steps to create one, which is a big leap forward. There’s little in the CAO’s description to suggest that that CDS will indeed tackle institutional continuity. Of course, there’s little upside to telling members of Congress that on your to-do task list is planning for what happens after their demise.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, or won’t, be doing it.
Senator Ron Wyden, one of the early members to take on a TechCongress fellow, is now hiring tech staff directly. He’s in the market for an advisor to help “craft forward-looking technology policies and conduct oversight over a range of government and corporate tech practices.”
Speaking of hiring, the New York Times is hiring an Alphabet reporter.
A look at Thrasio, a company that exists to roll-up Amazon sellers.
Speaking of consolidation, in the ski industry it’s lowered season-pass prices while still annoying customers.
But if crypto is going to make people rich, women want to be among them.
LinkedIn is testing a no-politics filter.
This is called Wordle-jacking:
A design-focused look at how Wordle gets your attention.
Book recommendation: read Max Chafkin’s Peter Thiel biography to better understand why his leaving Facebook’s (Meta’s, whatever) board is part of a decades-long political trajectory.
Just for fun