If you pay any sort of ongoing attention to Congress, you’re probably familiar with GovTrack, the extremely useful online resource created by Joshua Tauberer in 2004, containing robust info on the status of all the bills that hit the floors of the House and the Senate. It’s a fantastic tool, and today we’re looking at a crowdfunding push to make it even better by hiring a full-time researcher to add additional context and analysis to the bills and votes being tracked.
Until very recently, GovTrack was fully automated and had no staff — which is why one man’s pet project has been going strong for over a decade without much if anything in the way of revenue. But Joshua knows there’s lots more the site could be doing, and recently hired an intern to start testing out a big new addition to GovTrack: researchers who can closely follow the most important bills and dig into them deeper than the algorithms can, providing commentary and analysis plus readable summaries of legislation, and reporting on the underlying political context. To that end, they’ve also launched GovTrack Insider as a Medium page, which already features a bunch of posts on various important bills and votes from the last few months.
The Kickstarter goal is to upgrade from an intern to a full-time researcher on a six-month contract — or two as a stretch goal. This could really take the already-useful GovTrack to a whole new level.
While I don’t by any means think this is a bad idea, there are still a few potential pitfalls. The first is that it’s not clear how this one-time fundraising goal can/will translate into something ongoing. A researcher can do a whole lot in six months, but the ongoing flow of bills through Congress requires ongoing attention with no end in sight. Will we be looking at another Kickstarter for the next congressional session? Or is there some plan to secure new revenue streams with the expanded GovTrack? Either way, if this project is as useful to people as it’s likely to be, some will surely be happy to keep paying.
The other, perhaps more critical, pitfall is politicization. Once you move from automatically tracking raw data to actually writing up summaries and analyses, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have to start taking political/ideological sides from time-to-time, no matter how committed you might be to neutrality or objectivity. It might prove very difficult to expand GovTrack in this way without beginning to be seen as an at-least-slightly partisan publication rather than a wholly neutral tool for anyone to use — though, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
There are some very interesting rewards available for backers of this project (and the choice to link the dollar amounts for the various tiers to important Congress-related numbers is a neat one). At lower levels, backers can get in on webinars and group chats that explore Congressional issues and provide advice on political advocacy, while the higher tiers offer the ability to get custom summaries and analyses written of bills that you choose.
But perhaps the most attractive (or at least the most fun) options are those that take advantage of the research intern’s other skill: art. At various tiers, he’ll draw you a custom caricature of any Representative or Senator that you choose. No word on if you get to dictate how flattering or unflattering said caricature is, though.