There are not many people happy with Congress or politicians in general these days. Voters tend to have a higher opinion of cockroaches. However, what these voters don't see are the efforts going on right now to make the political environment in and out of DC better for voters and the nation.
I have already discussed the Congressional Management Foundation and OpenGov Foundation. These organizations are bridging the trust and communications gap between voters and members of Congress with new technology.
There are others who are working with Congress and outside the institution to bridge divisions and restore faith in the process.
Getting A First-Hand Perspective of the Problem
The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), for instance, is comprised of over 500 former members of the legislative branch. It clearly has the best insight into the inner workings of Congress, and part of its mission is to educate citizens about the intricacies of the legislative process and reconnect voters with their representatives.
"These days it is very easy to beat up on Congress, and clearly the approval rating and the very low number of citizens who view Congress as doing a terrific job backs that up," said FMC CEO Peter Weichlein, in an interview for IVN.
"In addition to that, a whole bunch of people running for Congress are doing so on a platform of, 'I'm going there because the place is so incredibly dysfunctional, and I will be the one fixing it.' So even candidates of Congress are running against Congress."
Weichlein says his organization acts as a positive advocate for Congress. The challenge, of course, is many people are not open to the idea that the institution could possibly be painted in a positive light. How could anything good come from the swamp?
I asked Weichlein how we get past the gridlock and perceived dysfunction in the current hyper-partisan environment on Capitol Hill that has so many voters frustrated and angry and feeling disillusioned. He said there is a surprising amount of common ground on important hot button issues that is not seen in the public debate.
However, it is much easier for former members of Congress to discuss topics like guns, immigration, and health care openly and honestly because they "don't have to worry anymore about being primaried out" based on their position on one issue.
This is why Weichlein says hosting events and programs in the public domain and getting voters more involved is so important:
"When we have audiences participate in our public events: (A) It creates a better understanding of the nuances of these issues, and where there might be common ground; (B) It then leads to our elected officials being held to a little bit of a higher standard. 'Why can't we have elected officials who can be as engaged and open on these issues as what we just witnessed?'; and (C) we use those settings to talk about things like the primary process and how the primaries in gerrymandered districts have taken the power of individuals away, and how there is a fix for a process that is no longer leading to true representation."
When I asked what particular fixes he believes there are for this problem, he would not speak for the organization -- which he emphasized stands for empowering voters, educating the electorate, and recognizes there is a responsibility that comes with citizenship -- but personally he supports opening the primary process.
"Forcing voters to demonstrate party allegiance to help determine their representative is one of the key factors in why our primary process has become so partisan," he remarks.
In particular, he says people should look at a system akin to the nonpartisan top-two open primary in California, which serves the public purpose of narrowing the field of candidates down to the most viable candidates among all voters, regardless of party affiliation. Voters are then presented with the top vote getters, "and not just people who are wearing the party label to the extreme."
"We're no longer being truly representative when it comes to the way we determine our members of Congress," Weichlein adds.
When Strange Bedfellows Collaborate
Another organization that is out to bridge divides and find common ground is Convergence. The organization brings together key stakeholders on issues like health care, education, and the federal budget who engage with policymakers and the legislative process.
"We work on a variety of issues of critical national concern where gridlock or failure to share knowledge across sectors is getting in the way of progress," says Sharona Shuster, associate director of Development and Impact at Convergence.
"We convene the leaders who have the knowledge, the resources, the commitment that -- if they come to agreement -- can make change move forward more rapidly."
These leaders are not only key stakeholders on these issues, but represent diverse political and ideological perspectives.
Convergence's largest project, "Education Reimagined," for instance, brought together 28 individuals who operate within the education space in various ways -- from a university dean to teachers and administrators in local school districts to union leaders and charter school leaders. There are even industry professionals from companies like Walt Disney.
"Our projects go through an 18-month dialogue phase where there is about 6 to 10 meetings," Shuster explains.
"The participants meet face-to-face for two days over that 18-month period, doing a variety of activities to help them build trust, to identify shared principles, to learn together, to build a relationship with each other, to share their concerns and constraints within their organizations, and generate innovative, enduring recommendations and solutions that they can own together and champion the implementation of.
These individuals run the gamut, and sometimes represent opposing ideological perspectives. Yet, they were able to draft "A transformational vision for education in the US" to address widespread concerns in public education systems nationwide, and are now in a robust implementation phase for a learner-centered education model.
"They are building a national network of learner-centered educators and practitioners who can build tools and systems to advance this field," says Shuster.
"They are convening education leaders from around the country to open up the policy conditions so learner-centered practitioners can experiment and have more space within their district and their state to innovate. And then they're also trying to mobilize public will to invite communities to explore learner-centered education as a possibility for their children."
It really shows what can be accomplished when we have groups and coalitions that are committed to bridging ideological and communication gaps, and unite under shared ideas and principles.
We're Not So Different, You and I
The most common theme I got from my conversations with all these organizations is Americans are not as divided as portrayed in the media. Often times the biggest division is one that prevents the right people from connecting -- whether that is constituent to lawmaker or topic experts that represent diverse points of view or voter to voter.
If we cannot bridge these divisions, we will never move forward on any issue or problem that gets in the way of a healthier political ecosystem. And you might now be thinking, "Duh, Captain Obvious," but this requires effort and dedication from citizens, grassroots organizations, industry professionals, and elected officials.
That is where organizations like the Congressional Management Foundation, OpenGov Foundation, The Association of Former Members of Congress, Convergence, and so many others that don't get a segment on CNN or make the pages of the New York Times come in. They are working in their own ways to bridge these gaps.
"Our philosophy focuses on building trust across ideology," says Shuster. "What we believe is that people are not as different as they appear to be, and when they truly get to know each other and build relationships with each other, they are able to move past stereotypes and find ways they can really collaborate together."
No man is an island, as they say. More organizations are beginning to realize that the best way to effect change is through collaboration and to join together in the shared understanding that we can create a better political system if we work together. That is why these groups have joined with the Bridge Alliance, an expanding and powerful coalition of 80 civic action groups.
"This is a real opportune time and there are more organizations doing great work than I have ever seen in the 20 years I've been in this space," says Peter Weichlein. "Overall, I have seen more and more organizations that are committed to improving our process, and realizing that there are all these different wheels that together can form a much more powerful group that has true impact and true outreach."