Clearly, Washington hasn’t been covering itself in glory lately. The debt ceiling standoff in particular seems to have catalyzed an outpouring of frustration over what many think has been an especially feckless congress.
Naturally, opinions differ about where blame should lie. But I hope we can all agree about this much: the fact that many congressional websites went offline last night is deeply shameful.
There was a reason for it, of course. The President addressed the nation and urged citizens to contact their representatives. Something like that is going to produce a lot of web traffic.
But the vendors who manage those systems should have been prepared for it. Congressional websites are not particularly complex. Caching technology, aggressively and properly applied, should have been able to avoid most of this problem. To the extent that it couldn’t, there still isn’t much of an excuse. We’re now several years into the cloud computing revolution. Competent vendors should be ready for spikes in demand, and able to spin up additional resources as necessary.
The congressional phone system also shouldn’t escape blame. I was at a hackathon in SF recently where one of the teams demoed a Twilio-based app that dialed their local representative’s office — in this case it was Nancy Pelosi. It was the weekend, and they were so confident that her voicemail inbox would be full and unable to accept new messages that they’d even written a little gag about it into their pitch. It was a funny joke, but it’s not particularly amusing that this inability to communicate can be counted on to happen.
This stuff is important. Too often, people in Washington look at the huge volume of emails, letters and phone calls that arrive on the hill and shrug. There are a ton of messages, so handling them necessarily becomes a bit like a factory job. And the many correspondents can be counted on to have differing opinions, so no single call or missive can ever be given very much weight. As a result, it’s tempting to view dealing with constituent communications as a pointless chore — a pressure valve by which citizens can blow off steam, but not much else.
That view is tempting, but deeply wrong. These channels are the cheapest, fastest and most egalitarian way for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to petition their government. Making sure these channels stay up and running is a serious responsibility — one that the Capitol Hill vendor community ought to take more seriously.