Summary of Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century

Summary of

Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century

By Lorelei Kelly

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Summary Written by: Brandon S. Brown

The author identifies a current day problem in the idea that “Congress is knowledge incapacitated, physically disconnected, and technologically obsolete” (pg. 1). Due to Congress’ inability to maintain connections to the modern society that it represents, the author believes that it cannot fulfill the duties laid out by the U.S. Constitution unless it updates its “digital infrastructure” and the way it collects and manages data.  

The monograph "lays out a plan to accelerate this institutional progress. It scopes out the challenge of including civic voice[s] in the legislative and deliberative process. It then identifies trusted local information intermediaries who could act as key components of a modern knowledge commons in Congress” (pg. 1). The author recognizes some systemic changes being made towards these aims, while also pointing out individuals in Congress who are leading the way in leveraging technology and connecting to their constituents.

In this century where data is “quickly becoming the currency for decision-making power” (pg. 2) Congress is falling behind by not prioritizing keeping up with the times in the ways it collects, processes, and makes data available.  There is so much diversity in all the districts represented in the U.S. Congress that there can’t possibly be a one-size-fits-all approach to solving the current inadequacies. But after reviewing recent scholarship, doing independent research with staff, and holding conversations with congressional offices in urban, suburban, and rural districts, the author was able to identify “inefficiencies of the current system." She concluded that a “systemwide digital infrastructure as well as updated institutional standards for data collection” (pg. 5). are needed to allow Congress to do its job effectively."

The article discusses the history of Congress specifically in terms of the population growth that has happened in the U.S. and the numerous disconnects that have resulted in the way citizens are represented.  “When Congress first convened in 1789, a single member represented 29,000 people.  Today, that number has increased to 755,000” (pg. 17).  Increased numbers in how many people each member represents, coupled with losses of policy staff and independent resources for individual congressional offices, and the physical way that congressional staff is dispersed outside of Washington D.C. have not been followed by modern data-gathering or information-sharing methods to keep members of Congress in touch with their constituents or other members of government.

“While lawmakers initially embraced social media as a means for communicating with constituents, its ad-based revenue model risks commodifying civic voice” (pg. 12).  The current state of public opinion holds little trust in in the political structure and Congress as an institution, and if an alternative system of political communication is not established, then the little trust left will wither as Congress becomes more “vulnerable to automated gaming and purchased information distortions” (pg. 13). 

The second half of the article discusses the potential for catching up with the times and gives examples of representatives and districts who are revolutionizing the ways that they represent their constituencies.  Civic voice has great potential for influencing the formative stages of policymaking, but in order to do so, citizens need to have many more ways of being informed about discussions happening in the early phases of the process.  Sharing ideas once the “cake is already baked” (pg. 15) doesn’t help the citizenry have an active role in the policymaking process, making the role that connecting technology can play in including the civic voice an incredibly important aspect of modernizing the process of lawmaking and policy creation.

The current goal of Congress should be to build a modern knowledge commons which creates a “responsive, effective democratic platform to connect with the public” (pg. 17). According to the author, now is the time for mapping resources, building confidence, gathering ideas and experimenting in order to establish a “trust engine” that sorts and filters information according to members’ workflow and in line with its rules (pg. 18).  By utilizing information intermediaries Congress can begin the process of getting back in touch with constituents; district staff, land grant and public universities, civic innovation accelerators, local government, public libraries, local news media, and civic technology can all be tapped into in order to “help create a modern, inclusive form of digital federalism in Congress” (pg. 26).

The path is already being forged.  This article cites numerous representatives who are modernizing the ways they represent and communicate with their districts.  In addition, Congress recently achieved three milestones cited by the author: 1.) In January 2019, the bipartisan Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act was signed into law by President Trump; 2.) The House created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress; and 3.) Congress is replenishing part of its science and technology assessment capacity within the Government Accountability Office (pg. 37).