Doing Business with Congress: A Primer on Information Technology Acquisitions in the Legislative Branch

A guide for vendors, civic hackers and public interest technologists on building tech for Congress

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Of the three branches of the federal government, Congress is the most responsive to the American people. On a daily basis, congressional offices hear from constituents, industry groups, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders across a broad range of issues. While digital tools have lowered barriers to communication with our elected representatives, Congress’s information technology (IT) infrastructure and staffing have failed to keep up with the new influx of information. The Members and Committees that oversee the governance of IT often have other priorities and limited technical depth. Opaque and fragmented rules also make it difficult for prospective vendors to do business, or for public interest technologists and civic hackers to meaningfully contribute.

This paper gives an overview of the governance structure, technical policies, and acquisitions processes for information technology infrastructure in Congress. The first section offers a brief history of the adoption of electronic communications and information technology in Congress. The second section provides an overview of the governance structure for information technology in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and other legislative branch entities. The third and final section provides an overview of technology acquisitions categories and procurement processes in each chamber. At the end of this paper, you will also find appendices listing information relevant to technology acquisitions that, in most cases, is not otherwise publicly available.

Our goal with this paper is twofold. First, we wanted to provide a resource for prospective vendors and civic hackers to help them navigate the structures and procedures involved in working with Congress. Second, we wanted to identify opportunities for reform that will help create a better functioning Congress that can leverage modern tools to serve the needs of the American people.

In this whitepaper, you'll learn

  • How information technology is handled in different parts of the legislative branch
  • About the policies and procedures for information technology acquisitions in the House and Senate
  • What Congress can do to improve its information technology infrastructure and vendor ecosystem

About the Authors

Ken Ward is an expert in, among other things, civic technology. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he was a staffer on Capitol Hill who gained an in-depth understanding of the technical and logistical challenges faced by Congressional offices. He went on to become the founding CEO of Fireside21, where he was instrumental to the expansion of the company's product offerings as well as their successful adoption on the Hill. This fifteen years of experience gave him a front row seat to the challenges and opportunities of providing services to the legislative branch. Despite the difficulty of making change in government (download), Ken continues to be an optimist for the future of our democracy.

Zach Graves is head of policy at Lincoln Network, where he works on technology and governance issues. Prior to joining Lincoln in July 2018, he was founder and former director of the technology and innovation policy program at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. Prior to joining R Street in 2013, he worked at the Cato Institute. In addition to his work at Lincoln, Zach is a Technology and Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, a fellow at the Internet Law and Policy Foundry, and an associate fellow at the R Street Institute. He is also co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition. Zach holds a master’s from the California Institute of the Arts and a bachelor’s from the University of California at Davis.

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