“New media technology has made it possible for citizens to enact more directly and efficiently than ever before with their elected leaders, and created the potential for unprecedented, real-time dialogue between the American people and Members of Congress.”
The House Republican leadership drafted this quote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 19, 2010. If the Republican leadership stays true to its words, Representatives will be allowed to interact with their constituents on Skype when the 112th Congress convenes in January.
Members of Congress from both parties have been using new technology to interact with their constituents for a number of years. Telephone Town Halls have become a staple on the Hill, with Representatives answering questions from thousands of constituents over the phone from the comforts of their Capitol Hill office. Currently, in order to implement either a telephone or virtual town hall, offices have to pay thousands of dollars to companies such as iConstituent, one of only a handful of certified companies that can work with Congressional offices.
Skype – which is free for everyday users – has been banned from Congressional offices because it is classified as a peer-to-peer application and thus presents security concerns. According to this CNN article, Skype is working with Congressional lawmakers to alleviate any security fears.
The fact is Skype will present Congressional offices with a much more affordable communications option with a level of technical support similar to what they are already receiving. So when Skype becomes available to Congressional offices, how can Representatives utilize it to reach out to constituents?
One option is for Members of Congress to “attend” more functions in their home state virtually. A Senator may not be able to fly from Washington D.C. to Nebraska for an reception, but they can link into the event and address the crowd via Skype. Another option is for more Representatives to follow the lead of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and chat online with school classes in their home district. Opportunities to connect with supporters will only increase as Skype unveils video via mobile phones, which is surely to come soon, as this article illustrates.
Inevitably, technologies like Skype and mobile video are going to create many more opportunities for Members of Congress to reconnect with their constituents on a regular basis. From meeting with supporter groups, talking with donors, and having a presence at more events, inexpensive video conferencing tools are going be a boon to Congressional offices and a nightmare for schedulers.