It is no secret that Americans are dissatisfied with the work Congress is doing. A 15 percent congressional approval rating has become the norm in American politics. Most voters don't feel either party represents them on Capitol Hill, and people feel like neither chamber is able to get anything substantive done.
But there are organizations out there that are leading the effort to change a political culture that has millions of Americans feeling left out in the cold.
In the media, all people see is partisan bickering between two sides. They see a gap between members of Congress and their constituents. They see a division between voters that matter to politicians, and voters who don't.
What they don't see are the many civic action groups, nonpartisan organizations, and reformers trying to do something about the myriad of problems that have contributed to the political environment we have today.
For instance, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has worked to bring policymakers and constituents together for over four decades.
They work with lawmakers and their staff on ways to improve how their offices operate -- from writing letters to constituents to better office management practices. They also work with voters who are interested in getting more involved in advocacy efforts and how best to catch the ear of their representative.
"In any given year, we'll interact with over 300 congressional offices, and more than 1,000 staffers will take our training programs," says Bradford Fitch, CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
CMF has also trained over 60,000 citizens in advocacy techniques.
The organization believes that a big part of why people don't believe they are being listened to is a problem with the communications process itself, and that it is important to focus on ways to build relationships and trust through technology between citizens and members of Congress.
Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, agrees with this sentiment, saying "it is fair to say that there is a massive communications breakdown between those inside of government and those on the outside."
He explains that there are 3 main drivers that contribute to this communications breakdown:
- There are 300+ million people and 28 million businesses who are trying to communicate with one Congress.
- The pace and diversity of ways we communicate with each other outside of government far outpaces government's adoption of new technology and "its slow-pace bureaucracy."
- Because of the massive volume of communications -- especially since the 2016 elections -- the only thing government is hearing from across all mediums is noise.
And all Americans hear is partisan bickering.
Kraft says OpenGov Foundation's flagship product, Article 1, has dramatically increased consumer satisfaction when it comes to communications between constituent voicemails and "the systems, the culture, and the people who serve on the inside of Congress."
"It radically increases the satisfaction of the constituent, because when they call, they no longer get a full voice mailbox or a busy signal, and they also get an automated response that lets them know very simply, 'I'm your congressman, we got your message, and we will get back to you shortly,'" Kraft explained.
He also notes that the program will expand to include text messaging (a prototype is already in use), daytime calls (i.e. live interactions), social media, mass advocacy communications, and more. He argues that a product like Article 1 can also improve the overall political culture in DC.
"New technology opens the doors and changes minds for process, and new process needs pushes up against and enforces rapid change in rules and culture," he says.
And this just barely scratches the surface on what these organizations are working on to create an environment where elected officials and constituents can better connect and communicate with each other to bridge the existing trust gap.
The Congressional Management Foundation and OpenGov Foundation are both "member" organizations of a broader and expanding coalition of civic action groups called the Bridge Alliance, and through this association have found ways to collaborate to tackle shared goals.
In my conversations with both Fitch and Kraft, they both had similar things to say about the importance of coalition building in this space -- particularly congressional and political reform right now.
"When I started in my first tour of duty at CMF it was 2001, and if you asked me who are the groups that are interested in congressional and democracy reform, I would reply, 'You couldn't put together a poker game,'" said Fitch. "Now, we can field a couple softball leagues. It's really amazing."
"The Bridge Alliance fills a void in America that really needed to be filled. In essence, it's a trade association for democracy reform and likeminded groups that never existed before. Bridge Alliance is offering up the opportunity for collaboration in a real, meaningful way."
Kraft adds, "Our efforts are accelerated and amplified by being partners and allies through the Bridge Alliance."
To learn more about the Congressional Management Foundation and the OpenGov Foundation, be sure to check out their websites.
Americans are clearly not happy with the current political environment, and these two organizations are just one of several that are working together to address and solve these concerns.
Stay tuned for coverage on more organizations working to create greater accountability in Congress and restore a healthier process for governance.