Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996
 New Congressional Network Coming, an Interview with Vernon Ehlers

CMC Magazine: What was the computer situation in the Congressional Offices when you first arrived in Washington two years ago?

Ehlers: It was good in some respects and bad in others. Each office was relatively well-equipped and able, in most cases, to communicate with their district offices. But it was also poor in a number of ways. First, each office bought the equipment and software they felt they needed to perform their tasks, so we had a great variety of equipment and software with no uniformity to speak of. The variety of software and email used has made it impossible to have a central email directory. Secondly, even though there was a network which connected all offices, it was cumbersome--and still is, for that matter. For example, it is far easier for me to send email 600 miles to my office in Grand Rapids than it is to send it 20 feet down the hall to the Congressman next door.

CMC Magazine: How did the House's computer system compare with what you were accustomed to as a member of the Michigan State Senate?

Ehlers: Obviously, it was not as good. But I may be a little biased because I was involved with setting up the complete computer system for the Michigan Senate. We had a good integrated system with all the computers tied together on a network; seamless communication with other offices and other individuals; and access to our personal file server from any computer anywhere within the complex. So when I was on the floor or in any other office, if I wanted to access my file server, I could do it without any difficulty.

CMC Magazine: When shaping this new system, was the culture of the House taken into consideration? If so, what are some of the tasks and requirements you had to factor into the system design?

Ehlers: We definitely took the culture of the House into consideration, but in addition to that we did a needs analysis before we started working on the details of the project to make sure we were meeting the real and perceived needs of the individuals using the system.

I believe we have come up with a plan that will meet those needs and take into account the culture of the House. One of the major factors, of course, is that we have 435 individual offices for the Congresspersons and each one has the authority to run his or her office as he or she wishes. In other words, we have 435 entrepreneurs buying their own hardware and software. What we're trying to do is create a network that will support that. We want to try to introduce uniformity and friendliness between computers while respecting the right of each member to choose the equipment or software they desire. That's sometimes walking a tight line, but I think we've succeeded.

CMC Magazine: How big of a role do the Internet and the World Wide Web play in this design?

Ehlers: It's in many ways a small part of the design but an important part of the total picture because that's the way we interface with the public and they interface with us. But in terms of our total system design, most of the design had to go into developing a hardware and software infrastructure to allow the House to function internally the way it should.

Even though there's less effort involved, there's perhaps equal importance or greater importance attached to the communication of Congress to the world outside and vice versa.

CMC Magazine: Specifically, where is the project at? Is it completed or are you still in the development phase?

Ehlers: We're still in development. We have all the major House documents on the Internet, but they are not always readily accessible (not even with the good search engines in some cases), so it's really difficult for the neophytes to find the documents they want to find. Right now, it's not oriented toward the user the way it should be. I'm hoping by the end of 1996 to have a very user-friendly system that will allow the public to get in and examine all House documents, proceedings, bills, the Congressional Record and so forth, and do it in a very easy-to-use fashion.

In addition, in regard to computerization of the House, the basic plan is that we are in the process of upgrading the hardware to the extent that we can and then encouraging individual members to upgrade their hardware. We've also recommended that we have a common messaging system for the entire House and we've recommended, also, that it be Microsoft Exchange. Currently, we're undergoing a proof-of-concept test on (Microsoft) Exchange, and if it passes, it will be installed and operational by September of 1996. That will then provide us with the hardware and software infrastructure we need to get involved with paperless transactions. Basically, this includes developing a lot of groupware that will allow individuals to work on bills or other projects from their own workstations while in a live, interactive mode.

Also, since it's every hacker's dream to break into the Congressional system and the Department of Defense, we're spending a lot of time on security.

I'm trying to design a system that will be good well into the 21st century. I think the fun will begin once we get our hardware and software infrastructure developed and then we can begin on the really nice things you can do with groupware.

[]Casey explains how to access Congressional members' Web documents.

CMC Magazine: From the standpoint of the general public, what will they see from this system?

Ehlers: My hope is that the general public will see a very user-friendly way of accessing all House documents and information so that they can get whatever information they want as quickly as the highest paid lobbyists in Washington can get it. Also, I hope the American public will observe better service from their Congressman or Congresswoman in terms of the functioning of the office; the efficiency of operation of the office; and the rapidity of responses to mail or email messages and so forth.

CMC Magazine: One thing I've noticed is that since the Web has become more prevalent, more petitions are filling my mailbox such as one for the Internet Day of Protest that was urging people to fax, call, or email their legislators about the Decency Restrictions in the Telecommunications Bill. How effective are such movements in persuading Congressmen, and Senators as well, who probably just went online, toward a cause? Do you think it's effective, ineffective, or does it depend on the situation?

Ehlers: Well, it depends on the individual Congressperson frankly. At the moment, there are only about 100 who are online and receiving email. ... I can't speak for all of them, but in our case, we handle Internet mail the same way we handle standard correspondence. The only difference is that it's delivered here a lot faster than it would be through the U.S. Postal Service. We treat each letter and each communication in precisely the same way and since everyone here gets a lot of mail, we are used to handling that mail. We tally it in terms of statement of position and so forth. So, I don't see any real difference there.

One difference, perhaps, is that those sending email very frequently will send it to every Congressman since it doesn't involve much extra work once you have the directory of Congressional Internet addresses. At the same time, that's not very effective because Congressmen tend to listen only to the comments of their own constituents and are not easily swayed by communication from outside their own district.

I think there is a little danger of flooding Congresspersons with email messages because it can cut two ways. It can, perhaps, impress a representative that a lot of people are concerned about a piece of legislation. But, at the same time, if it's overdone they'll simply say that "this is obviously a very well-organized effort and most of these people really haven't studied the issue" so the Congressperson may tend to pay less attention to them.

CMC Magazine: How do you foresee the online medium affecting the democratic process--even the processes of decision making as far as the legislators are concerned?

Ehlers: I see it happening in a couple of ways. First, people can be flooded with email messages and respond either positively or negatively to that. But I think in general it's going to be a positive development in our democracy. The whole idea of a democratic form of government is to have informed voters who can share their opinions with office holders.

Now, we do have a republic in America; it's not a democracy in the strict sense of the word. It's a republic where we elect representatives who go to the Capitol to study issues and make decisions on our behalf. So there's always a line between saying "well, I've studied the issue and I know what should be done" and then comparing that with what your constituents want. Generally decisions are a mixture of the two.

I think, to be very specific, that in a few years we will have a system where people can sit at home and watch the Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN. If a bill or amendment comes up that they're interested in, they can get on the Net and get a copy of the actual bill or amendment under debate; they can study it; form an opinion, and send an email message off to their Congressperson saying "I've studied this issue you are debating right now and I think you should vote 'yes' or 'no'"--whatever the case may be. That's a very effective way to enhance citizen participation and I think the system of government can only be enhanced overall by that type of participation.

I might add that this is far better than simply flooding offices with mail in response to some request from an organization saying "Here's an issue and quickly send the following letter to your Congressman."

CMC Magazine: Do you think it's possible that there will be equal representation among the constituency? I'm speaking less of class issues than monetary issues. Do you think there's going to be some sort of equalization at some point where the poor will have access to computers and the Internet so they can contact their Congresspersons, like you just described?

Ehlers: I think a lot has been made of this--that it introduces an inequity and it does to a certain extent. But I think that's only part of it. Another factor in being able to do what I've just described is having the time and that's going to be limited to retired people, people who are on disability, or people who are unemployed or on welfare. And that, again, sorts out an entirely different stratum than only those who have the money to own a computer. I think the money problem is just a temporary one. I believe that within a few years we will have virtually universal access to the Internet. We will have very cheap terminals designed specifically for that, in many cases attached to the TV set so you don't have the added expense of a monitor, and so I think this problem will go away fairly quickly.

The issue of people having time to use the access is something that's always going to be with us. --

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