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Surprise! Democracy in action, and Congress was not ready for it

Over the weekend of Sept 27-28 and on into the following week computers at the House of Representatives were overwhelmed by citizens attempting to reach Congress, email their representatives, and read copies of the proposed Wall Street bailout bill. (See: Scaling house.gov).

An article in Infoworld sheds a little more light on the events of last week, but also leaves a number of questions unanswered.

One cause of the overload was people trying to use the embedded “Write Your Representative” program, but there is also some indication that there was a huge spike when the text of the proposed Wall Street bailout bill was posted online Sunday and people were attempting to read the text of the bill.

The descriptions of how user traffic “clogged the servers,” and how the House.gov web site was “inaccessible for lengthy periods,” and how, in an attempt to deal with the problems, site administrators shut off an email access program, and how, “users were completely locked out of the site by Monday afternoon” are disappointing, but should not really surprise us. In designing its digital e-government interface to the public, the House apparently underestimated potential use of the site and did not invest the resources necessary for high citizen use of the web site.

According to the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, the timeline of the bailout bill was so abbreviated that “we had a surge of people who wanted to read it and download it.” The same spokesman is quoted as saying that the Write-Your-Representative application “was never meant to handle the enormous load” of messages it began receiving on Sunday.

Surprise! Democracy in action, and Congress was not ready for it.

As late as Wednesday last week, house.gov was “accessible but only after a delay,” was “responding slowly overall,” and parts were “sluggish or completely unresponsive.”

At least the House is trying to fix some of the problems. It is now testing what “appears to be load balancing technology.” But is that enough?

This experience reinforces what we at FGI have been saying for a long time: the “problems” with digital government are not technological, they are social, political, and economic. The technical solutions exist, but too often we find that the will is not there to pay for and implement those solutions. It is easier to build systems that scale to the past use of systems than it is to build systems that anticipate growth and new users and new uses. The use of house.gov last week may have been “unprecedented,” but it should not have been unanticipated.

Citizens and government information specialists should be asking questions of the government:

  • Is the government switching to digital delivery of information to save money or to enhance communications?
  • When the switch to digital costs more than staying with paper, will the government fund the costs?
  • When experts express the need for more infrastructure to meet growth and new uses, will there be funding, or will Congress wait till systems fail as they did last week?
  • Will the government seek to “share the load” by depositing digital government information in the Federal Depository Library System so that users have many choices of where they get and use that information?

See also: The Technical is Political, by Jim Jacobs and Karrie Peterson. Of Significance…, 3(1) 2001, p.25-35. Association of Public Data Users.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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