Rep. Katherine Clark found the secret to boosting her online following: posting a picture of a cute animal.
The picture of the Massachusetts Democrat with the internet-famous Wally the bunny had a purpose. It was to promote a bill she sponsored to help protect pets of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
But there was an added benefit. Through her increased social media presence Clark has been able to reach a larger audience with information about her legislative efforts. That included the recent Democratic sit-in over gun control that she helped organize.
“Being able to increase that social media arch is so critical to communicating,” Clark said. “And the response we had through social media, when we did the sit-in, just underscored that we were really glad we could begin with a far increased audience than we went into the competition last year.”
When Clark posted the picture of Wally the bunny last year, she was participating in the Online All-Star Competition hosted by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer’s office.
The goal of the annual three-week competition is for members to boost their social media following. Clark had the largest gain (15,590 new followers), so she was named MVP. A new round of the competition is currently underway.
The battle for who can best extend their social media reach is just one of several initiatives Democrats have launched in recent years to improve the use of technology in House operations. (Republicans have launched their own initiative for government innovation.)
Other initiatives include electronic whipping, a mobile application that provides updates on the floor schedule; a briefing series for staff on various outside applications and online tools their offices can use; and an intranet page where Democrats can access messaging materials, dear colleague letters and a resume bank.
“The bottom line is we’re trying to, in real time, keep members up to date and their staffs up to date on what’s available both to make ourselves more transparent to the public and to better communicate with the public,” Hoyer said.
The Maryland Democrat said the initiative members seem to enjoy the most is the Online All-Star Competition, which is now in its seventh year.
Members try to expand their social media followings on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to earn the titles of MVP or Freshman MVP. They also compete for subcategory awards.
“Members get pretty excited about it,” Hoyer said. “We have a lot of people participate.”
That’s clear from the competition’s scoreboard , which is updated every morning of the three-week competition.
As of Sunday, Rep. John Lewis , D-Ga., was in the lead with 5,990 new social media followers.
But since Lewis won a sub-category award last year, for most viral post, he is ineligible to win the MVP award this year. Rep. Barbara Lee , D-Calif., trailed Lewis with 3,641 new followers on Sunday.
With more than a week still left in the competition, which ends July 20, it’s still anyone’s game.
Fun, but about business
Many of the Democrats’ technology-focused initiatives are fun. But they’re also about business.
Take, for example the intranet page, DemCom.
Launched about eight years ago, Democrats use the secure site to share internal documents like “Dear Colleague” letters, bill fact sheets, issue talking points, outside organizations’ position papers, and public sentiment from POPVOX.com .
All the documents are categorized by legislation. DemCom also hosts a staff directory and calendar.
DemCom is also home to a resume bank where Democratic members and staff can browse resumes the public submitted through democraticwhip.gov/resumes when making hiring decisions, as well as comment on the resumes to endorse or recommend the person for a job.
Since the launch of the resume bank in 2012, more than 6,000 resumes have been submitted and staff users have left more than 500 personalized recommendations for their colleagues.
Rep. Ted Lieu used the resume bank to hire his chief of staff after he was elected in 2014.
“I found [the resume bank] helpful because I could look at a lot of different resumes for the same position and fairly quickly compare different people,” the California Democrat said.
Lieu’s staff has also found the technology initiatives helpful, especially the semi-regular briefings on different applications and online tools that offices may find useful.
In one such Beta Labs briefing , Lieu’s staff learned about the Facebook algorithm that rewards users for embedding video into their Facebook page versus linking to outside sources such as YouTube.
That tip helped Lieu’s staff make a video of him pushing back against a witness at a hearing who was insulting immigrants. It become one of the most watched videos in the House.
One size doesn't fit all
“Not every platform is going to work for everyone,” said Beckelman, who helped Hoyer’s office establish the Beta Labs series. Rep. Mark Takano , D-Calif., has the only office with a Yelp page, for example.
The technology service providers conduct the presentations at the Beta Labs briefings, a quick pitch of eight slides and an opening and closing with at least one slide explaining how a congressional office could use the technology.
The briefings — there have been four since February 2015 — always include one big-name presenter to serve as an anchor, like Slack, and a mix of other services, mostly ones that are available for free.
“It’s an hour, period. And [staff] leave with takeaways,” Beckelman said.
Beckelman was also involved as a group leader in the Congressional Hackathon that Hoyer hosted with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in October 2015.
[ Hoyer, McCarthy Host 2nd Congressional Hackathon ] The hackathon brings together members and staff from both parties, as well as technology industry experts and open government and transparency advocates, to brainstorm how the legislative process can be improved by technology.
Some ideas that have come out of the hackathon — and since been implemented — include providing legislative data in bulk format so that outside developers could use it more easily and creating a standardized platform for streaming video of committee hearings and markups.
One idea from the 2015 hackathon that is not yet implemented is a tool that would search big legislative packages for individual contributors. That could be helpful because larger pieces of legislation often combine several smaller bills authored by multiple members of Congress.
'Not afraid to fail'
Rep. Tony Cárdenas , D-Calif., said Hoyer has done a good job keeping up with the changing technology.
“For an old man like Steny, I’m really proud of him,” Cárdenas joked.
One of Cárdenas’s favorite tools is the Whip Watch application , where members, staff and the public can get notices about what’s happening on the House floor in real time.
[ Floor Updates? There's an App for That ] “It’s made my life easier,” Cárdenas said.
As a member Hoyer’s whip team, Cárdenas also finds the electronic whipping system helpful because he can fill out the voting information for the members he’s responsible for through an online form sent via text or email rather than carry around paper cards all the time.
Cárdenas said he often fills out the electronic whip cards, which he can send immediately to Hoyer’s office, as he’s talking to members. “In that way,” he said, “it’s a heck of a lot more efficient.”
Contact Lindsey McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.