As a former Hill Staffer, I've been wanting to write this article for a long time -- but I kept putting it in a mental "never going to happen" file. But as government distrust hits record highs, and Congressional approval numbers hit record lows, I figured: "Why not finally break down the walls between the people and their representatives"... literally.
I've worked in both a Capitol Hill cubicle, as well as an open co-working space at a startup and I can tell you both Congress and the tech community can learn a thing or two from each other. Taking a page from innovative industries can radically transform the way elected officials represent their constituencies and change the way policy gets made. By physically bringing staffers together we could break down the partisan barriers that often keep staffs from communicating across the aisle, all while simultaneously creating a more representative constituent experience.
Imagine this as a staffer: instead of working in tiny cubicles with your face in a computer and your back to your colleagues, you were in a large open space with clusters of moveable desks surrounded by the Democratic and Republican staffers from your state delegation. The space could be outfitted with phone booths for private meetings with your constituents, and conference rooms for meetings just with your boss's personal office team. We could even put in some lounge-like bump-outs for more casual conversations to foster brainstorming and big ideas.
Need to work on a letter urging your Governor to taken an action? You can just walk around to staffs in other rooms and get it done in minutes! Need to brainstorm about ways your delegation can respond to a natural disaster? Why not pull together a huddle in a collaborative environment to discuss shared goals, priorities, and concerns? Open, co-working space can promote greater trust and collaboration -- not two words often associated with Washington.
Let's face it, it's not always easy to build relationships across the aisle -- or with offices from different factions of your political party for that matter. Staffers tend to attend briefings sponsored by ideologically-aligned groups and socialize with their colleagues at functions and happy hours that fit their boss' priorities. How can we expect staff to work with their colleagues from another party when the current structure and demands on their time often bar them from even meeting them?
This isn't a pie-in-the-sky idea, we can let the facts speak for themselves. Co-Working spaces foster community and collaboration -- and can give our legislative process a serious upgrade.
According to a study by the Congressional Management Foundation, only one in four hill staffers were happy with the work-life balance their job allowed, while 70% of co-workers reported feeling happier and healthier after ditching the traditional office in a study released by wix, officevibe, and the center for social innovation. Co-workers also said they were 64% better able to complete tasks on time, 91% had better interactions with co-workers and 90% said that they were more confident in their work.
I'm sure you're thinking, "This sounds great, but it would never happen." What if I told you, it already has?
After the 2001 Anthrax attacks, the Senate Hart Office Building was closed from October 17, 2001 until January 23, 2002. During this shutdown, the 50 senators and thousands of staffers had to hunker down in the offices of colleagues, and in open office space around the capitol complex. Don Ritchie, The U.S. Senate Historian Emeritus recalled the shutdown saying: "Republicans and Democrats alike shared offices. Committees moved in with each other. Senators went over to the Senate Library, where nine people went around one desk with one computer and one phone."
After the Senators and the staffs could re-enter the building, the Senate Historian's Office did a series of interviews to discover what happened: "We discovered that there was an enormous amount of camaraderie because everybody was operating out of these confined areas... people brought in cake and cookies during the day... Afterward, people felt nostalgic about going back to their offices and losing that sense of community that had existed."
The world no longer exists in silos -- and our government can no longer afford to pretend like it does. With marketplaces connecting regions, and conversations happening in real-time coast-to-coast, the process of "representation" is no longer contained to regions defined by Congressional district. Now more than ever, the futures of rural and urban America are intertwined and the process of representing has to be equally as collaborative.
We need to completely re-imagine the picture of the government employee from the "Paper Pushing Bureaucrat" to the passionate, devoted, and innovative public servant that the government often attracts, but can not always retain. We need to recognize that these public servants are not cogs in a wheel, but are humans that function and work differently. By recognizing that people should work where, how, and when they feel most productive we can unleash what I've always known to be the government's best asset: the countless innovative individuals who have dedicated themselves to building a stronger, more representative democracy.
Mr. Speaker, Tear Down That Wall!