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GIS: A Platform for Enhancing Policy and Civic Engagement

Elected officials face the constant challenge of describing complex and intricate policies to constituents. In turn, constituents want to know answers to important questions, such as: how is a policy going to affect our community? How is legislation helping to bring economic development to our district? Has funding been used wisely? For the myriad of policy decisions that legislators face on a daily basis, they rely on accurate and authoritative data to keep citizens informed.

In our quickly changing digital world, citizens are now demanding more from elected officials. They are conducting more business online with government, signing online petitions, e-mailing legislators, and leveraging social media as an advocacy tool. This digital ecosystem has created a new frontier of civic engagement. In an effort to remain relevant, Congress has quickly begun to adopt emerging technologies to meet their citizens in this digital space. Although many interactions take place online, a constant remains; nearly every government process is tied to location. This means that geographic information systems (GIS) are uniquely positioned to transform the way Congress arrives at policy decisions and engages with citizens.

In partnership with Esri, the global leader in GIS software, GovLoop explores why GIS is the citizen engagement and policy tool that legislators have been waiting for. We’ve seen countless examples of how GIS has been leveraged by the executive branch. Now, it’s our legislator’s turn to capitalize on GIS technology. To hear firsthand what is happening in Congress in regard to GIS, we spoke with three thought leaders on the topic:

  • Josh Johnson, Vice President, Washington Operations, Logistic Specialties, Inc
  • Tim Petty, Correspondence Director/Deputy Legislative Director
  • Cathy Cahill, Legislative Fellow, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

They have provided valuable insights on the power of GIS for Congress. Additionally, we highlight how Senator Tom Risch (R-Idaho) has leveraged GIS to improve constituent services, but there are many more examples. Beyond Senator Risch’s office, there are pockets of bright spots in which legislators have adopted GIS. “Once we show Congress the power of GIS tools, they will immediately want to start leveraging GIS. This is one of those things that is on the cusp of taking off,” said Cathy Cahill. Esri has highlighted additional examples, which include:

  • Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon): Showing the number of Medicare beneficiaries suffering from chronic disease as part of the Wyden-Isakson-Paulsen-Welch Better Care, Lower Cost Act of 2014.
  • Representative Mark Takano (D-CA41): A comparison of Title I funding for schools with high numbers of children from low-income households and the schools' academic performance index scores in California's 41st district.
  • Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio): Showing places where Ohioans can safely dispose of unwanted prescription drugs supports the senator's efforts to combat prescription drug abuse.

These legislators are leading the way for GIS adoption in Congress, and understand the role GIS can play to make sense of a deeply complex world. For legislators, GIS offers an opportunity to provide clarity from complexity, and help government craft smarter policies, read our latest report to learn more.