Skype your Congressman? House adds VoIP for citizen-to-legislator communications

We the people can now add “Skype me” to the list of phrases your representative may utter in a commercial, town hall or stump speech. This morning, the leadership of the United States House of Representatives approved the use of low-cost video conferencing tools like Skype and ooVoo.

“This is another example of the new Republican majority using digital tools to better engage with and listen to the American people,” said Speaker Boehner in a prepared statement. “We’re committed to keeping our pledge to lead a House that is more open and that gives Americans a real-time voice in their government.”

On this count, the Speaker has firm ground to stand upon. The GOP has been steadily adopted new technologies into the House since the 2010 midterm elections. From livestreaming the transition to moving House.gov to Drupal, the Republican leadership has followed through on many of its commitments to innovation and transparency. Beyond new media adoption, structural changes through opening legislative data have the potential to permanently bake in open government to the People’s House.

Adopting the same low cost Voice over IP tools for videoconferencing that are in use all around the world makes sense on many levels, despite security concerns. Congressmen and their staff will be able to easily communicate with one another at a lower cost now. Daniel Lungren, chairman of House Administration, offered more context for the upgrade to VoIP in a “Dear Colleague” letter this week:

Improving constituent communications and increasing transparency has been a top priority for me as Chairman of House Administration and a member of the House Technology Operations Team. That’s why I am pleased to announce that the House’s Public Wi-Fi network has been enabled to allow Members and staff to conduct Skype and ooVoo video teleconference (VTC) calls.

To maintain the necessary level of IT security within the House network, the House has negotiated modified license agreements with Skype and ooVoo that will require Members, Officers, Committee Chairs, Officials and staff to accept House-specific agreements that comply with House Rules and maximize protection for Members and staff. Detailed requirements on how to comply with these agreements have been posted to HouseNet at http://housenet.house.gov/keywords/VTC. Please note that Skype users will be limited to conducting VTC sessions on the House’s public Wi-Fi to minimize security risks associated with peer-to-peer networking.

During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents. In addition to Skype and ooVoo, we are searching for additional means to help enhance constituent communications.

“Citizen-to-legislator” communications using VoIP will hold some challenges. Skype and ooVoo both allow conference calls between more than one party but neither will is ideal for one-to-many communications without some tweaking. If a representative’s staff can set up a projector and sound system, however, we may well see new kinds of virtual town halls spring up, whether someone calls back from Washington or from the campaign trail.

Less clear is how constituent queueing might be handled. If hundreds of citizens, activists or lobbyists are all trying to Skype a Congressman, how will priority be assigned? How will identity be handled, in terms of determining constituents from a home district? As I wrote this post, two other questions posed to the Speaker’s office also remained unanswered: will video chats be archived and, if so, how? And will Skype’s file transfer capabilities be allowed?

On the latter count, given the difficult past relationship of the House and P2P filesharing software, learning that file sharing capabilities were disabled would be in line with expectations. UPDATE: Salley Wood from the House Administrative Committee confirms that the current configuration does include file sharing. “Today’s announcement is simply that lawmakers can now take advantage of these platforms using official resources,” she related via email.

Archiving of constituent video chat is another issue, and one that will be added to the growing list of 21st century new media conundrums for politics, like the questions of whether lawmakers’ texts during public meetings become public documents.

What is clear is that one more domino in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools in government has fallen. What happens next is up for debate — except this time, the conversations will span hundreds of new Web connections. This will be, literally, fun to watch.

UPDATE: As Nick Judd blogs over at techPresident, the Hill was the first to report that the House enables use of Skype for members, basing its reporting off of “Dear Colleague” letter above. There’s no shortage of detail in the Hill’s piece, nor good linkage from Judd. So, you know, go read them.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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