Thune's Morning at #Hack4Congress

April 30, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This morning, U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, kicked off #Hack4Congress, a hackathon that brings together coders, designers, and innovators to develop platforms to better Congress through technology.

Follow Sen. Thune’s morning at #Hack4Congress:

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Sen. Thune kicks off #Hack4Congress at Google’s office in Washington, D.C.

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An innovator at #Hack4Congress discusses his open Internet project

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Sen. Thune and a group discuss a #Hack4Congress challenge to improve Congress

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Live on Periscope: Follow @SenJohnThune and @CommerceGOP for videos from #Hack4Congress

Sen. Thune’s as-delivered remarks are available on YouTube and his written remarks are below:
“Good morning and welcome to Washington.

“As I have submitted three challenges for the Hackathon, and am as eager as anyone to see your ideas get into motion, I’ll be brief.

“As you get started this morning, know that you are part of an extraordinary effort.

“While Capitol Hill frequently has issues brought to our attention, it is exceedingly rare to have such a skilled and motivated volunteer group focused on improving how our legislative branch does business.

“Elections can and do usher in change – last year’s election has ushered in new leadership in the U.S. Senate.

“But government is stubborn.

“For all the change the election brought to the U.S. Senate, the systems we use to communicate with our constituents, the processes used to pass legislation, and the protocols we use to procure information technology remain largely unchanged from where they were six months ago – and in many cases, six or more years ago.

-    Did you know that, during the committee amendment process, sometimes amendments are proposed by making handwritten additions to a printed copy or by simply crossing out text with a pen?  

-    Or that the official Senate copy of committee proceedings, while recorded in HD format, are downgraded just a week later to standard format when copied to a DVD for storage?

-    Though the use of e-mail and electronic documents has certainly increased, a paper copy of every bill – sometimes thousands of pages long – is still placed on each Senator’s desk in the Senate Chamber when a bill is debated.

“This happens even though staff and Members have hopefully been poring over the text in their own offices for days, weeks, or months in advance.  

“Real technological advancement is necessarily a disruptive force.

“As you work on the challenges today, I encourage you to be bold and push our institution to change old ways of doing business with new innovations that allow us to do our job better.

“There is frustration in our country with Congress and a federal bureaucracy that often seems to put its own needs before those of the public.

“As much as I and colleagues on both sides of the aisle acknowledge such problems, we often struggle as an institution to convey our analysis of important policy debates to the public.

“The challenges we face can be quite complicated, but we often only have a few minutes to explain them in media appearances.

“Whether Congress has it right or wrong, in an age of instant information, a representative body serves no one well when it misses opportunities to create common understandings of problems and solutions.

“A real dialogue with the public is also not supposed to be a one-way conversation. As much as we want the public to know and understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, input from the public is just as critical for us.

“What if we could use technology to make that input more impactful?  

“What if we could analyze opinions on an issue to yield more than just counts of support or opposition?

“What if analysis could help us find and reach out to thought leaders in our states to back important policy initiatives?

“Could we find ways to differentiate original suggestions from those that have already been discussed?

“Identify ways for the most thoughtful feedback on our efforts to stand out over the most polarizing?

“The existence of such tools could actually help change the tone of a discussion – finding ways to help constructive suggestions stand out would create new incentives for productive dialogue.

“Citizens who espouse similar views in public Internet forums could also use such technology to find one another and develop true grassroots movements based on their positions.

“Technology has done incredible things in this country. As Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the Internet, we have looked sector by sector at how technology is revolutionizing services:

-    Medical patients in rural areas can have serious conditions monitored over the Internet instead of facing frequent and lengthy treks to hospitals.

-    A system is currently being developed so that emergency first responders and law enforcement can talk across jurisdictions and share critical information as the need arises.

-    By having commercial aircraft and ground controllers coordinate through modernized communications systems, we will reduce delays and save fuel while simultaneously improving safety.

“Congress has to do better. And I am glad you are here to help.

“It’s easy to be a cynic in Washington, but I’m energized by the spirit of this endeavor, and your commitment to selfless service. Your readiness to help reminds me of something our late President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address.
“To quote President Kennedy-  

‘The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

‘And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’

“Let’s get to work on building our digital democracy. Thank you.”  

Background:  Sen. Thune submitted three challenges that hackathon participants could tackle at the event, including an information-sharing platform for congressional hearings.