Better Headphones
Mar 09, 2011 Clay Johnson

When the first census drew to a close in 1790 here in the United States, there were a little under four million people in the United States. For comparison’s sake, that’s roughly the same population as the urban Washington, DC metro area today. When that first census wrapped up, we had 65 members of Congress. Divide the numbers, and you’ll see that each member of the House had just about sixty thousand people to represent*.

Tradition was, new census would come out, the population would grow, and new representatives would get added to the House of Representatives. Concerned that congress was getting too unruly (and concerned that it was getting more difficult to make quorum), the congress of 1911 passed Apportionment Act of 1911 (Public Law 62-5) that fixed the number of members of Congress to 435. The ratio of members of Congress to Citizens was 1:212,000. And ever since then, it’s been growing. We’re now at about 1:717,000.

Looking internationally, the United States has the greatest number of constituents per representative amongst the G8 countries. We’re more than twice the ratio of our nearest neighbor, Russia (with a ratio of 1:315,000), and more than Russia, Japan, and Germany combined. Looking at the top ten most populous nations, the US is second only to India, with no other countries coming close to our level of representative scale.

As a result, American citizens no longer feel like their Congress is representing them. And for good reason— you try representing the interests of 717,000 people — one fifth of the population of the United States when the framers wrote our Constitution. While innovations in technology and transportation have made it easier for Representatives to represent more people, our representative democracy is having a significant scalability problem.

Adding to the complexity, the Internet has given people the ability to send their member of Congress a message (or all members of Congress) at a negligible cost. As if representing 717,000 people wasn’t hard enough, those people no longer need to write a letter and mail it— they can call or email cost-free. Not only that, we’ve built entire industries tools that effectively communicate with Congress. Finally, we keep inventing new mediums to communicate with members of Congress. Just four years ago, it was novel to have Ted Kennedy posting on Daily Kos— now we have members hustling their talking points on Twitter, managing their Facebook pages, and playing with their iPads on the floor of the House. Once heralded as a social media maven, John Culberson now has just about had it and staffers on the hill are calling social media a “pain in the a—”.

Plug your headphones in, turn them up to 11, and your instinct isn’t to turn the volume down, it’s to take them off. We’ve been building louder and louder megaphones without building better headphones. MoveOn.org, Blue State Digital, and Salsa Labs have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours working on their tools that allow people to send messages to Congress, but if walk into a hill office you will see ancient enterprise tools being used to process them.

It’s time to start building better headphones. That’s why I’m joining the ExpertLabs team as their Director of Engagement. We’re building ThinkUp. It’s a big part of the solution — to help governments listen better. It’s platform independent— not dependent on just Twitter or the Web or Facebook— but extensible so that it can help our government agencies better scale their ability to listen. It’s my job to help people inside governments get it, use it, and make sense of it. As great new platforms for communicating with government get developed and adopted, they can be incorporated into ThinkUp. That’s the right model.

I’m joining an all-star team with a great concept and a great mission. I look at it as a natural extension of what I’m trying to do at Big Window Labs— injecting Washington with new ideas and technologies that solve problems inside of Government.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson