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The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the current analog processes in the federal government to be insufficient in meeting unpredictable circumstances. This goes for public-facing services like state health benefits and unemployment insurance and the centuries-old legislative process upon which the nation’s laws were built. The recently announced House Digital Service (HDS)—a digital modernization effort charged with using technology to improve how lawmakers work and interact with their constituents—is a commendable idea with a good set of initial priorities, including focusing on remote technology and constituent engagement. Still, the HDS should also be deliberate in leveraging best practices from other federal digital services if it wants to succeed in its House digital transformation effort.
In January 2022, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the House of Representatives, Catherine Szpindor, announced before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress—the bipartisan committee tasked “to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent”—that, in addition to other congressional modernization initiatives, the CAO will be launching a House Digital Service to improve “access to innovative technology tools that enhance [Member] offices’ operations,” including delivering intuitive solutions, introducing best practices from the private sector, and utilizing rapid prototyping.
The concept of a Congressional Digital Service has been around for the past few years. After all, the approach of recruiting and deploying a team of technology experts to expedite digital transformation in federal government has paid dividends elsewhere.
The Office of Management and Budget created the United States Digital Service (USDS)—the federal government’s rotating tactical tech team that supports IT modernization efforts—as a result of the healthcare.gov debacle and has since deployed its tech-savvy team on successful projects like covidtests.gov. Likewise, the Defense Digital Service (DDS)—a rapid response team of technologists for the Department of Defense (DOD)—leverages commercial tools and technology to address various DOD challenges.
In building out HDS, the CAO should consider adopting tenets from USDS and DDS, namely hiring highly skilled teams, focusing on users, “going where the work is,” and “telling the truth.” The USDS and DDS teams maintain a diverse assortment of technology professionals, including “software developers, engineers, data scientists, designers, and product managers from both the private sector [and] government.” Szpindor appears to be on the right track regarding the approach to talent for HDS. HDS’s initial recruitment drive includes a product manager, user experience designer, and software engineer. Leveraging fellows from other federal agencies is sensible; however, CAO should also make a concerted effort to acquire staff with hands-on experience in the private sector to help achieve the stated goals of developing best-in-class solutions and prototypes based on commercial best practices.
For the most part, HDS’s first set of priorities does well to focus on user-centered tools and “going where the work is,” including telework technology, planned development of a constituent relationship management platform, and addressing accessibility issues for House-hosted websites. However, HDS should also prioritize another fundamental function of the House: drafting and processing bills.
The Government Publishing Office (GPO)—an agency in the legislative branch that produces information products and services for all three branches of the federal government—recently shared that “the legacy system for handling legislative documents is both archaic and difficult to update” and new software is needed to modernize congressional bill processing. Currently, this process is still primarily manual and paper-based. Replacing this legacy system is a great early opportunity for Congress and HDS to focus on where the work is needed and collaborate with users on a solution that is vital to how the U.S. government operates.
“Telling the truth” is another tenet from USDS and DDS worth highlighting for HDS adoption. Congress has had a reputation for being slow and inefficient for decades. Final decisions about how to use technology will ultimately rest with Congressional leaders, but HDS, with support from the House Modernization Committee, should not back away from demonstrating often what things need fixing in Congress, how digital transformation can help, and how the House can adapt to better serve its constituents.
The right approach to HDS means transforming how the House operates and potentially the Senate—if the House CAO and HDS eventually coordinate with the Senate to establish a Senate or Congressional Digital Service—and, therefore, the legislative process overall. Furthermore, state and local legislatures can replicate the government digital services model. In this way, digital transformation in legislatures offers an opportunity to enhance democracy and citizen engagement across multiple levels of government across the United States.