NOTE: The following post is based on a phone interview I conducted with Seamus Kraft and Chris Birk, former Congressional staffers for Representative Darrell Issa and founding staff members of the Open Gov Foundation (www.opengovfoundation.org). You can stream the forty-minute interview via Soundcloud below.
In October of 2011, the World Wide Web was under attack. Buoyed by support from the entertainment industry, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas had introduced H.R. 3621, also referred to as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. An expression of the music and film industry’s frustration over online piracy of their artists’ creative copyrighted works, the bill overreached. Essentially, SOPA offered the U.S. Government the authority to shut down websites linked to the inappropriate featuring of copyrighted material even if a user, not the host, was the one to upload the material. If one of Reddit’s millions of users uploads a copyrighted clip, should all of Reddit be shut down?
A sample anti-SOPA image from Wikipedia
As the still young online industry began to realize the threats presented by the bill, panic set in. Lobbying efforts were hastily organized–sites like Wikipedia and Reddit blacked out content to protest, closing their virtual shops for the day. But these non-profits, start-ups and tech companies impacted by the legislation didn’t have lobbyists or fully mature industry associations. Moreover, despite their wealth of expertise and ability to promote awareness, they didn’t have a means of translating their knowledge of the bill’s flaws into meaningful guidance for all of the Capitol Hill staffer-types who were supervising the bill on behalf of their representatives. Enter Seamus Kraftand Chris Birk: two Congressional staffers working for Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA).
As Chris and Seamus point out, today’s methods of providing feedback to Congress aren’t as effective as they could be. Constituents may send letters or pick up the phone and explain why they don’t like a bill, but these comments are rarely of a nature that is specific enough to fix real legislative glitches. It’s essentially, “This is a bad bill,” or “This is a good bill,” and unless you’ve hired a high-powered lobbyist, you’re out of the game.
“There aren’t really any feedback loops—or any good ones—in that entire process. So a constituent would write a letter saying I liked this bill you did, here’s why, or I didn’t like this bill you did, here’s why..they get a response back, and that’s kind of the end of it. That’s not very useful: a) because that data is divorced from the actual policymaking process, and b) it stops, and conversation and policymaking is a continuous conversation.”
Moreover, the entire nature of the communication is flawed–it’s in silos, meaning that individuals can’t collaborate to pool their collective knowledge on specific fixes. So, Chris and Seamus asked an interesting question: what if, through technology, Congress allowed anyone in the world who might be affected by the bill to enter the same digital room? Interested parties could add specific in-text comments on precisely what they felt was wrong with a section and create online forums on how best to rewrite it–out in the open, where everyone could see all contributions, and in real-time. Even better, maybe those people could collaborate to submit their own version of an entirely new law to lawmakers?
Out of this basic idea was born Madison: a small-scale software program to do just that, with massive implications for leveling the lobbying playing field. At a cost of perhaps $5,000, most of which “went to pizza and Red Bull,” Chris and Seamus developed the basic programming necessary to build Madison and host it on their newly created website: www.keepthewebopen.com. Their only question: if they built it, would the people really come?
In their first day, 150,000 did. By the end of the pilot year, a staggering 667,761 unique visitors from 193 different countries of origin had racked up 1,017,338 page views on keepthewebopen.com. Moreover, 2,433 users had registered 1,420 formal comments. Put simply, the reaction was overwhelming.
Moreover, feedback was also pouring in through other channels like Twitter and Reddit, where they hosted an IAmA thread on the bill. Anyone who knows their way around Reddit is familiar with some of the site’s lighter and darker profanities and quirks, but when the feedback was serious, Chris and Seamus began to encourage those users to comment on the bill directly in Madison, and in some cases cited feedback on Reddit directly. Seamus describes the Reddit reaction:
“On Reddit, we had lots of unvarnished opinions…but, when Congressman Issa said, “Hey, this is useful, even if there’s an F-bomb in there, would you come over to Madison and suggest that?” Those users checked their F-bombs at the door.”
Overall, Madison’s feedback was useful in two ways. First, the sheer volume of comments and website hits was staggering. Such attention alone was a powerful barometer of public support for reforming the law. Second, the feedback was channeled in a way which aligned perfectly with the real world grunt work of legislative markups. Armed with specific user suggestions and their underlying rationale, Representative Issa walked into committee meetings with line-by-line evidence of problems and potential improvements.
Madison could have been built by anyone. As Seamus wholly concedes, “The technology isn’t hard.” In fact, a technology as basic as Google Docs could accomplish a lot of the same goals, and there are similar technologies around the web–not to mention the Executive branch’s equivalent: regulations.gov. At its most basic, Madison is a painfully simple idea. So why didn’t anyone else implement it first?
Seamus offers a few reasons, paraphrased: 1) legislators already have their day jobs to worry about without innovating the legislative process, 2) not many legislators know how to code, and 3) building something like Madison, which could have failed spectacularly, seems like a big political risk. Representative Issa’s extra pocket change and tolerance for risk may have helped, but it was the SOPA-fueled demand for urgently gathering feedback from non-traditional advocates that finally catalyzed Madison’s creation and adoption. In Seamus’ words, “It was, like Waterloo, a close run thing.”
In listening to Seamus and Chris’ story, it’s useful to highlight a few takeaways for future civic innovators:
- Build to the specification. Put differently, this basically means that whatever you do should complement the existing process and make others’ jobs easier, not harder. Designing to specification means aligning an innovation with existing government processes to the extent possible.
“If there were adoption costs for anybody involved beyond the barest of bare minimums, this was not going to fly…Because we were software developers, and legislators, and staff-we built to our spec…We weren’t going to say, “Don’t talk about this on Twitter,” or, “If you want to talk to me about SOPA, do it in Madison”–that’s stupid, and it’s also inefficient. But, if you were talking about SOPA with me in Twitter, and it got to the point beyond either I like SOPA or I don’t–”what is the section of SOPA that does this?” Then, “Ah-ha. Click right here.”
- The technology is not the hard part. The key is often much more about changing the infrastructure, policies and practices of government.
- Don’t underestimate the crowd’s intelligence. Legislation is an arcane and very different language from spoken English, and not too many coders are also policy wonks. As Seamus points out, there was a real fear that SOPA was too complex to be understood and commented on by everyday Americans with other jobs. But it wasn’t.
- Don’t underestimate the crowd’s free time. Nearly all of the hundreds of thousands who visited Madison undoubtedly did so of their own accord and interest. Sure, not every bill will see these kind of participation rates, but most people weren’t getting paid for their comments. As Seamus notes, “It’s that warm fuzzy inside of all of us.”
- Broaden your definition of “expert.” Every single human being has had a unique existence, and there are learnings, experiences and insights that all of us have to offer.
One of my last questions was on the future of Madison. How long until we have it for every piece of legislation in the nation? Thankfully, Madison was developed as open source tool, meaning that any legislative body in the world is welcome to take their code. Your city councilmember uncle who you always argue with at Thanksgiving dinner? Tell him about Madison. Your state representative? Tell her about Madison. By the time Seamus and Chris are through, they and their Open Gov Foundation will have changed lawmaking.
Learn more about Madison below:
The author would like to send his sincere thanks to Seamus and Chris for offering their time to tell this harrowing story when they could have been sharing their victory with more lucrative media outlets, or perhaps continuing the undoubtedly laborious process of uploading all active bills of Congress into the tool.
Kevin can be found on Twitter as @kevinmhansen.