The banana republic of big data

“The money is in the noise,” said a former poorly paid congressional staffer, now successful social media guru, when I asked why she left. A noisemaker herself, she warned, “It’s going to get louder and deeper.”

There’s a reason Americans feel dispossessed by their government. We citizens have fewer and fewer opportunities for substantive interaction with our leaders. Corporate-funded organizations and narrow interest advocacy campaigns stand in as proxies for citizens as the distance grows between leaders and those they represent.

This distance changes the dynamics of democracy.

When external entities provide to our representatives ready-made policy research and recommendations, the incentives of Congress stop being aligned with engagement, knowledge-seeking and deliberation — its primary trust-building functions. Instead, a “talking points industrial complex” — which may or may not be adequately inclusive — thrives. Competition for leaders’ attention becomes seriously big business.

When the winners are those with the loudest voices, and having the loudest voice involves spending the most money, the interests of the average American get lost in the noise. The talking points industrial complex is exploiting the vulnerabilities of our most democratic institution just as Congress moves into the 21st century.

In 2010, the Supreme Court allowed unlimited and anonymous money into our governing system with the Citizens United decision. It has metastasized. Big money donors now purchase access to power both through political campaigns and policy information shops. The first of these think tanks were earnest translators of academic jargon and complex ideas. They acted as curators of institutionally relevant information.

Today, many of the biggest and best-funded think tanks also depend on support from wealthy vested interests. They have become a PR-savvy tribe of “thought leaders” with political action committees and trigger-happy social media mobs. “Goon squads with sharpies” is how one current Hill staffer described them. And, they are interfering with the kind of informed democratic participation that holds leaders accountable for seeking and using the best knowledge available for decision making.

The old adage that knowledge is power still applies in the Information Age. The problem is that today the information that turns into knowledge for policy making often comes at a civic price. American citizens are paying this cost because we cannot be adequately represented by institutions that are paralyzed because of their attention-deficit challenges.

Our democracy is currently coping with a volume of digitized noise that is crushing the civic soul of government.

In a twist of unintended consequences, new companies are using data in ways that make it easier than ever to track and understand the activities of Congress. However, their subscription-only services are too expensive for regular people and even for many members of Congress. Thus, public data that was intended to provide average citizens with better information with which to hold leaders accountable has provided yet another means for moneyed interests to gain the upper hand in policy discussions. In the worst cases, public knowledge is re-packaged and sold for a profit.

Like governments the world over, Congress cannot effectively discern and synthesize critical policy information in today’s loud, politicized public discourse. Our democracy is currently coping with a volume of digitized noise that is crushing the civic soul of government. Still, Congress has the responsibility to process information coming from every direction and seek information from stakeholders who are not typically represented in the inflow.

Congress currently lacks the capacity to perform these duties. Moreover, wealthy private interests are willing to fill the void wherever Congress lacks deep policy expertise or tech talent. Our legislature does not lack information, it lacks a modern capacity for sorting through the information to arrive at representative, unbiased policy judgement.

At a moment when propaganda, viral memes and lies are vanquishing public discourse, Congress’ deliberative defenses are weak and vulnerable. Committee hearings are down by 50 percent since the 1990s. Staffing is at 70 percent of 1979 levels. Congress bitterly decries the consolidation of power to the president — the House even created a Task Force on Executive Overreach — but this damage is self-inflicted. Starting in 1995, Congress began to purge itself of its own technical, decision-making and oversight capacity. These cuts have left it with inadequate methods for coping with the weaponized information of our digital era.

Some representatives see technology and data as a way to be more efficient and engaged with constituents, but members are lucky if they get a computer science intern for the summer because budgets for technology help are minimal. Absent the technical resources to modernize its processes and better manage the information deluge it faces every day, Congress will see the overall institutional trend toward diminished capacity continue. This will deprive members of their voices and shut the public out of policy discussions about issues that impact their lives.

When the two most obvious components of modern public life are noise and money, members’ daylight hours are devoured by fundraising and appeasing the loudest interests — often self-serving and narrow. They do this instead of diving deeply into policy issues, talking to each other and having substantive interactions with constituents. In other words, they can’t perform the very democratic functions that lead the nation forward.

Congress needs an Information Age infrastructure that receives a broad scope of credible input from all stakeholders, synthesizes it and provides output that facilitates a comprehensive, common understanding of the issues so leaders can deliberate and develop sound public policy.  Instead, it has a last-century information monopoly and it is grinding to a halt.

Rethinking federalism for modern democracy

On the inside, Congress has made great strides using technology to automate publishing, webcast hearings and convert U.S. code to an interactive text template called XML. It is among the most open legislatures in the world. However, from the outside, Congress looks like it is doing everything possible to avoid improving civic interaction about the big issues of the day.

What if we move some of Congress’  information infrastructure into the states? Building a new and more decentralized knowledge-gathering system for Congress can increase its capacity and serve its institutional needs for broader participation. By focusing on senators’ and representatives’ constituencies, it can align political interests with a more evidence-based process.

Potential data intermediaries already exist. Land-grant schools, museums and libraries, citizens with expertise, local professional organizations — these would become the public interest curators — representing voices that often go missing in today’s public policy clamor. A thoughtful plan would facilitate their participation at the right time and place in the legislative process. It would strengthen, not replace, the excellent knowledge resources that Congress already has — committee staff, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.

Democracy cannot be renewed with emojis and private algorithms hosted on an advertising platform.

Congress is a durable institution. It is not built for direct democracy, but it can facilitate a more inclusive one, especially if it has public support to start experimenting. To do this, Congress needs help fully integrating into the Information Age. But this cannot happen through the profit-motivated efforts of corporations selling upcycled public data back to Congress or developing new platforms for citizens to petition Congress.

Congress must create new norms and rules of engagement for itself and depend on a public — not corporate — intellectual infrastructure to collect and synthesize representative, reliable data and formulate public policy. Not all information is created equal, after all. Public policy requires authoritative knowledge, not just sentiment analysis. The tech industry is a vital player in modernizing Congress, but democracy cannot be renewed with emojis and private algorithms hosted on an advertising platform.

Instead, the tech industry should dedicate its best data scientists to the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. America needs a data center with a civic search engine. If we can’t reverse Citizens United, let us engineer it into irrelevance. Information integrity, reputation, location and inclusion should be decision rules for this civic-purpose algorithm.

Finally, senators and representatives must begin to change the practice of democracy itself. Hearings and briefings, for example, should feature new methods of collaborative input, distance-participation, visual data that forecasts and explains outcomes and opportunities to integrate data throughout the deliberative process. How about an engagement challenge for moving parts of the process into the states?

The urgent need to adapt our Congress so it can manage well in today’s information environment puts us at a crossroads: Will our legislature be the banana republic of big data, exploited and incapable of benefiting the public with its own valuable information and technology? Or, will it be a 21st century democracy that uses these new knowledge endowments to move society forward?