For the past two months, I’ve been developing RepresentedBy, a Facebook application created for the Sunlight Labs Apps For America competition. During the two months of development, I’ve immersed myself in the online government world and while I’ve been exposed to quite a lot of great work by passionate individuals, I’ve also realized how little of Congress is digitally transparent.
Digitally transparent can mean a lot of things to different people, so in an attempt to quantify that, I’ve developed what I’m calling the DTI, or Digital Transparency Index. This is a number between 0 and 115 that gives you a rough idea of how engaged a legislator is in the digital world. Legislators are scored on the following criteria:
- 25 points if they have a public facing email address
- 20 points if their website has a valid RSS feed
- 10 bonus points if they’ve posted a news item to their RSS feed in the past week, 5 bonus points if they’ve posted a news item to their RSS feed in the past month
- 20 points if they have an active Twitter account
- 10 bonus points if all of the tweets on their home page are from the past week, 5 bonus points if all of the tweets on their home page are from the past month
- 20 points if they have an active YouTube account
- 10 bonus points if they’ve posted a YouTube video in the past week, 5 bonus points if they’ve posted a YouTube video in the past month
The sad truth is that Congress isn’t as digitally immersed as a lot of us. Out of 115 possible points, the highest score anyone received was an 85. Worst of all, out of 451 active legislators, 209 of them scored a big fat zero, 161 legislators scored low (meaning an index of 35 or less), and only 81 legislators scored 40 or higher.
|digital immersion||# of legislators|
|medium to high||81|
My first assumption was that this gap was an age related issue. The average age of Congress is around 60 years old which isn’t exactly the average age of of your cutting edge Internet user. However, I compared the results of the Digital Transparency Index with the number of years that someone has been in Congress and didn’t notice any obvious trends implying a difference based on age. Here’s a graph showing the results.
The far right of this graph indicates highly engaged digital legislators, and the far left of the graph indicates poorly engaged digital legislators. Aside from the large number of legislators who are not digitally engaged, when you start looking closely at highly engaged digital legislators, there’s not a huge disparity between the number of new, younger legislators engaging digitally and older, veteran legislators engaging digitally.
Next, I wondered if there was a connection between digital transparency and earmarks. Taxpayer.net recently released information about active legislators and the earmarks they have included in the 2009 stimulus package so I compared the amount of solo earmarks included by each legislator with their Digital Transparency Index, and graphed the results:
While there is a disproportionately large number of legislators who are not digitally engaged and who have not sponsored large earmarks, you’ll notice that as digital engagement increases, there becomes fewer and fewer legislators who are sponsoring extremely large earmarks. The only exception to this rule is Nancy Pelosi who has a very large Digital Transparency Index (80), but has also sponsored a large number of solo earmarks ($15,667,000).
Is this a trend? Does being digitally engaged and having real-time communication with your constituents discourage legislators from sponsoring earmarks? Or is it the opposite and legislators who don’t support earmarks on principle are more likely to take that message directly to the people and engage with them digitally?
Here’s a table summarizing my findings.
|digital immersion||# of
|medium to high||81||$4,069,291||15.1|
If you want to see where your legislator falls on either of these graphs, then check out RepresentedBy, a Facebook application I’m creating which includes this information and personalizes it to your specific district.
Finally, I hope to develop the Digital Transparency Index some more, so if you have any comments or suggestions on how to improve it, then please include them in the comments.