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Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, Chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and Republican Rep. Tom Graves, Vice Chair, discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the work of the House of Representatives and how technology advancements can be used to better serve constituents

Francis: Hearings in the House of Representatives have had a virtual look during the coronavirus pandemic, but those hearings are not immune to technical glitches. A recent Foreign Affairs Oversight Investigation subcommittee hearing had to take a recess twice because of bandwidth issues. Representative Derek Kilmer is Chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress; Representative Tom Graves is Vice Chair; gentlemen, thanks very much for joining me. Mr. Chairman, I’ll start with you. Your committee has been at work since long before the coronavirus pandemic started. What have you learned about how remote work and so on affects the mission of the House as a result of the coronavirus?

Rep. Derek Kilmer: Well, you are right. This is a committee that was set up at the beginning of last year with a simple mission, and that is to make Congress work better on behalf of the American people. And in the midst of this virus, part of the challenge is just making Congress work, period. We’ve learned a few things: one, it’s really important that every committee, that every office has a continuity of operations plan. More often than not, most members didn’t have policies related to telecommuting, and frankly the technology solutions weren’t there. The reason that’s a problem is because, now more than ever, our constituents are leaning on us for information and to solve problems on their behalf, so part of what our committee’s been looking at is, how do we ensure that there are systems in place to ensure the continuity of operations so Congress keeps working. Some of that is big things, like broadly having a continuity of operations plan in place; some of it’s small things, so for example, the executive branch has figured out that digital signatures might be required when people are working remotely. Congress doesn’t really have provisions to allow that right now. The ability to communicate with our constituents. I’m sure Tom, like me, does a lot of town halls. There’s not any means through which Congress bulk purchases telephone town halls, when the main way in which we can communicate with our constituents is no longer in person, because we actively don’t want hundreds and hundreds of people getting into a large room with each other right now.

Francis: Mr. Vice Chair, Congressman Graves, what have you learned through all of this and what are you seeing, where are taking information, guidance, experience, knowledge from as you go about the work of trying to modernize the House of Representatives on the way it does business?

Rep. Tom Graves: Well this has been a great journey. We could’ve never foreseen what we would be dealing with today. And the chairman has done a wonderful job of leading us through this process of exploring how we can better serve our constituency through the adaptation of new technologies and connecting with our constituents. So we’ve had many hearings related to technology advancements, and a lot of things have been highlighted that we have recommended, like how can we bring on new technology faster and quicker. Often times in government, by the time you adopt the new technology, it is out of date, and there’s new technology in its place and now you are behind. And as he mentioned the continuity plans. But as well we made a recommendation to require all members to go through cybersecurity training, that they have an understanding of the threats that exist. Those are some of the positives that we could perceive.  What we’ve noticed since though are some of the challenges that I think everyone is dealing with across the country. We are very much a disrupted workforce like so many others. So having access to reliable broadband or internet or WiFi is something we have challenges with as members of Congress just as our staff does. And then we have additional cybersecurity threats that I think we as a committee and others are looking for how to address those as well when we have been moved into unsecure networks.

Francis: Mr. Chairman, your most recent hearing, virtual hearing of course, looked at how to boost internal expertise in Congress. Where are you looking for that information, what kind of expertise do you think you need to build inside the House to be able to meet the challenges we are talking about here?

Rep. Derek Kilmer: Part of the problem that we have defined is that there’s massive turnover in the legislative branch. The tenure of staff members is very short. In fact, one of the things that our committee was directed to look at was recruitment, retention, and diversity of staff so we have a staff that looks more like how America looks. We have had hearings, to your point, looking at best practices in the human resources arena. Some of that is looking at providing adequate compensation. Unfortunately, the legislative branch is lagging in relation to the executive branch and most assuredly to private industry. Some of it’s looking at things like professional development opportunities. People will stick around if they feel like they are making a difference and growing professionally, so we have looked at some of those best practices and seeing how they can be applied to this workplace.

Francis: Congressman Graves, we have about a minute left, what have you seen in the executive branch that you think will be useful as they’ve undertaken a pretty heavy duty IT modernization effort over the last several years? What have you seen there that you think might apply in the legislative branch?

Rep. Tom Graves: I think what we’ve seen is some of the challenges they deal with. They operate in a lot of silos, so there’s a lot of technology differences among the agencies within the executive branch. And I think what we’ve highlighted is the importance of bringing a lot of that together in the House to have some common practices, bulk purchasing, IT specialists assigned to the members’ offices, so using not necessarily what we are learning from the executive branch in a positive way, but some of the challenges they have and how can we learn from that so that we avoid some of the challenges they have in some of their updates with modernization as well.

Francis: Congressman Graves, Congressman Kilmer, thanks very much for joining me, I appreciate your time today.

Rep. Derek Kilmer: You bet, thanks.

Rep. Tom Graves: Thank you.

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