Ph.D. Student Samantha McDonald Helps Us Better Connect with Congress

March 22, 2019

For the past two summers, Informatics Ph.D. student Samantha McDonald has been going to Washington, D.C., to work with different congressional nonprofits, learning what role technology can play in improving communication with constituents. “From my studies, I’ve found that the primary technology inside Congress right now is databases called CRMs, or constituent relations management systems,” says McDonald. CRMs can monitor the number of people calling and the issues discussed, but they don’t create substantive engagement. “They’re taking the temperature of the district, seeing if people are getting heated up about certain topics,” she explains, “so it’s more of a way to track emotions than to engage constituents [and] recognize them as legitimate actors in policymaking.”

McDonald is researching how we can leverage technology to change this dynamic, so when her contract work for the Congressional Management Foundation landed her in a meeting with Marci Harris, co-founder and CEO of PopVox, she was intrigued. “Basically, PopVox is a civic communications platform,” she explains. “The co-founders are previous staffers on Capitol Hill, and they realize that we need something new.”

After the meeting, McDonald contacted Harris. “I reached out to say ‘if you ever need any help or want an intern, this seems super interesting and relevant to my work.’” Her initial email went unnoticed, but after following up, she received an enthusiastic response. McDonald, who has been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, is now interning with PopVox and helping the company test its new LegiDash software.

Tone, Truth and Trust
The PopVox platform has a public section for citizens, but LegiDash is specifically designed for use by Congressional members. Through a grant from the Democracy Fund, PopVox is testing whether its software can help members better connect with constituents. According to McDonald, the research asks three main questions related to LegiDash: “Does it improve tone, does it improve truth and does it improve trust?”

The goal is to foster a productive dialogue by creating a close-ended system in which only constituents can provide feedback, ensuring non-constituents don’t negatively influence the tone or topic. Members can control the conversation by providing reliable information about proposed bills, explaining their positions and asking policy-related questions. McDonald says she has learned the importance of transparency through her data analysis of satisfaction surveys for Congress and through related research. “If you’re just honest about why you voted a certain way, then your constituents like you more, because you’re vulnerable and you’re transparent about your logic and justification.”

Additionally, the platform will provide real-time updates on the status of legislation. “Sometimes, people will call to oppose a bill that passed an hour ago,” laments McDonald. “They called because an advocacy group told them to call.” When people are better informed, it can lead to more effective action. “My main concern is, how do we make citizens actually useful for policy making, instead of just for rants or delayed advocacy campaigns? How do we make meaningful engagement?”

From Demo to Dissertation
In January, McDonald traveled to Washington, D.C., to demo the system for congressional staff members, and she received positive feedback. She also learned that her work aligns well with the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “It’s brand new, and everyone in D.C. who does anything with congressional research is excited,” says McDonald.

The committee will have six Democrats and six Republicans, and their task is to “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress.” This mandate includes making recommendations on “technology and innovation,” which could help motivate members to try the free LegiDash software.

McDonald plans to return to D.C. for user testing next month. She is also hoping to collaborate with local Congresswomen Katie Porter while researching the software. “The ultimate goal is to get a few members of Congress to actually do experiments with us,” says McDonald. “So we’ll tell them, ‘ask a question about this bill,” or ‘you should do this,’ and we want to know if constituents are responding differently, and if members feel like they’re getting more value out of the conversation.”

McDonald plans to report on her findings as part of her dissertation.

Shani Murray