When Transparency and Technology Activists Come Together, Contacting Congress Gets Easier and Easier
Exactly one year ago, Amy Ngai of the Sunlight Foundation visited EFF's offices in San Francisco to introduce our staff to the rather large and versatile collection of transparency tools they've developed. Midway through her presentation, there was a moment when you could clearly perceive several pieces click into place in our activism team's collective mind. Sunlight is developing new technologies for engaging with Congress and the legislative process, while EFF has been at the forefront of mobilizing the online community to defend Internet freedom. With a shared hacker and tinkerer mentality and a love of exposing government secrets, a natural partnership was formed.
In April, Sunlight and EFF launched Contact Congress, and the title pretty much says it all: it's a project to make it easier to influence your elected representatives. Believe it or not, Congress doesn't make it easy to send them messages. Rather than publicizing an email address, most require constituents to fill out a tedious online form. There's no uniform standard for these forms, and in some cases they don't even work. The only other option for online advocates to generate email-writing campaigns was to shell out big bucks for proprietary software. With the help of scores of volunteers, we were able to reverse-engineer these contact forms and release a public domain system that anyone can use and hack to focus the power of the online activism.
You can read Sunlight's round-up of that stage of development here.
We continue to work with Sunlight to hone this project and on Tuesday they announced an impressive new feature. So far, the project has allowed groups like us to offer our own forms for the public to email Congress. Now Sunlight has has assigned actual email addresses to members of Congress. We'll let Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, explain how it works. Here's the post he published (re-posted here under a Creative Commons Attribution license):
We finally gave Congress email addresses
By Tom Lee
We've added a new feature to OpenCongress. It's not flashy. It doesn't use D3 or integrate with social media. But we still think it's pretty cool. You might've already heard of it.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it's been a long time coming. A lot of people are surprised to learn that Congress doesn't have publicly available email addresses. It's the number one feature request that we hear from users of our APIs. Until recently, we didn't have a good response.
That's because members of Congress typically put their feedback mechanisms behind captchas and zip code requirements. Sometimes these forms break; sometimes their requirements improperly lock out actual constituents. And they always make it harder to email your congressional delegation than it should be.
This is a real problem. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, 88% of Capitol Hill staffers agree that electronic messages from constituents influence their bosses' decisions. We think that it's inappropriate to erect technical barriers around such an essential democratic mechanism.
Congress itself is addressing the problem. That effort has just entered its second decade, and people are feeling optimistic that a launch to a closed set of partners might be coming soon. But we weren't content to wait.
So when the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) approached us about this problem, we were excited to really make some progress. Building on groundwork first done by the Participatory Politics Foundation and more recent work within Sunlight, a network of 150 volunteers collected the data we needed from congressional websites in just two days. That information is now on Github, available to all who want to build the next generation of constituent communication tools. The EFF is already working on some exciting things to that end.
But we just wanted to be able to email our representatives like normal people. So now, if you visit a legislator's page on OpenCongress, you'll see an email address in the right-hand sidebar that looks like Sen.Reid@opencongress.org or Rep.Boehner@opencongress.org. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to email both of your senators and your House representatives at once.
The first time we get an email from you, we'll send one back asking for some additional details. This is necessary because our code submits your message by navigating those aforementioned congressional webforms, and we don't want to enter incorrect information. But for emails after the first one, all you'll have to do is click a link that says, "Yes, I meant to send that email."
One more thing: For now, our system will only let you email your own representatives. A lot of people dislike this. We do, too. In an age of increasing polarization, party discipline means that congressional leaders must be accountable to citizens outside their districts. But the unfortunate truth is that Congress typically won't bother reading messages from non-constituents — that's why those zip code requirements exist in the first place. Until that changes, we don't want our users to waste their time.
So that's it. If it seems simple, it's because it is. But we think that unbreaking how Congress connects to the Internet is important. You should be able to send a call to action in a tweet, easily forward a listserv message to your representative and interact with your government using the tools you use to interact with everyone else.