Blog Post

Crises, Technology, Information Integrity, and the Future of Policy

  • Leisel Bogan
| Nov. 09, 2021

On March 22nd 2020, less than a week before national news headlines would announce that the United States had the most confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus virus in the world and had suffered nearly 3,000 deaths, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tweeted, “a significant proportion of epidemic transmission is due to...asymptomatic infection.” Meanwhile, interns and staff in Congress were moving from office to office collecting wet signatures for appropriation letters and other business, four members of Congress had tested positive for the disease, and 44 members had self-quarantined from exposure to the virus. Without widespread adoption of a simple digital signatures tool, Congress, with an average member age of 60, was at risk of rapidly causing every member to be infected. As 535 member offices rushed to work remotely, the Constitutionally mandated activities of the institution grew dim from public view— with two small exceptions, the House of Representatives did not conduct hearings or business meetings for nearly six weeks.  

Roughly ten months later, on January 6th, 2021, at 1:05pm, as members of Congress gathered in a joint session to confirm former Vice President Joe Biden’s win, email alerts from the Capitol Police began popping into inboxes across Congress. As colleagues frantically texted and called each other for information, news footage captured a riotous crowd ascending the steps of the Capitol. Among the technical and other difficulties that day, the Congressional email alerts for what would turn out to be pipe bombs identified near 2nd Street NE, did not appear or behave any differently than emails flagging a mundane road closure on any other day. A staffer who was not paying attention to the news and was perhaps near 2nd Street, for example, would have had no reason to believe those emails were uniquely urgent. A journalist in the same area, outside of the internal email system of Congress, would not have received a Congressional or other email warning at all. News images of unlocked computers in the Capitol prompted many of us to contact leadership to ensure that the machines were locked down remotely. “A weapon has been discharged inside the Capitol,” a text message read. Without an all-hazards plan in place, members and staff sprinted to fill in the gaps in functioning that day. They continued to work even as they, and those they worked for, hunkered down in offices or huddled in safe rooms while the Capitol Police fought off the violent crowds.  

A few months later, in August 2021, another crisis would pummel members and staff in the Capitol, this time from nearly 7 thousand miles away. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid takeover of the Taliban in the middle of fighting season prompted a deluge of emotional pleas for help from our Afghan allies and friends. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders in Afghanistan frantically contacted their former colleagues and interpreters in the U.S. military. Civil society groups in Afghanistan pleaded for assistance from their Western NGO counterparts with whom they had worked for nearly two decades. Members of vulnerable communities including the LGBTQIA+ community, women, judges, academics, orphans, artists, journalists, and comedians were suddenly at risk of losing their livelihoods and lives.  

During the last two weeks of August, volunteers working around the clock to help Afghans evacuate noted grimly that the United States government, a world leader in technology, was, in some ways, conducting an unprecedented NEO (noncombatant evacuations operation), via spreadsheet and an email inbox at the State Department. In one instance, the State Department sent paperwork that looked like visas to enter the airport via email to individuals who had been properly processed through the grueling U.S. immigration system. Those individuals should have had access to HKIA, the airport in Kabul being guarded by the Taliban. Without any personal identifying information, however, the passes were printed out by recipients, copied, and shared across Kabul, rendering them useless.  

In response to the chaos and pleas for help, many Americans, including me, joined together in a relatively uncoordinated volunteer effort utilizing online messaging services, collaboration software, open-source mapping and other technologies to help eligible families navigate around the Taliban checkpoints, across ditches and fences to the proper service members and open gates at the airport. We spent countless hours working to help our friends in Afghanistan and continue to collaborate on issues related to healthcare and food assistance, plane manifests, safe-houses, resettlement, and advocacy for those who remain at risk. Many of the individuals and groups continue to engage with the U.S. government, and some have joined together as broader coalitions, including AfghanEvac.  

During each of these crises faced by the U.S. government and the American people, there were three elements that played a critical, complicating, and often outsized role: technology, information integrity, and informal networks of committed individuals. In every case technology either facilitated or hindered a productive response to the circumstances, and in every case false or flawed information exacerbated them. Further, in each case the functional response to the crisis included a virtual element-- whether it was legislating in a virtual environment, responding to an attack virtually, or working virtually with individuals on the frontlines of an NEO. Finally, in each crisis, a group of individuals were able to augment the work of government employees. In the first crisis, Congressional Digital Service Fellowship pilot stepped in to help Congress with its existing efforts to modernize the institution. In the second crisis, Congressional staff, Fellows, and former Congressional staff acted to help the institution respond and recover to the attack. In the last crisis, former military veterans, existing servicemembers, NGO workers, and other volunteers took action to help support the NEO and resettlement efforts.   

Analyses of these case studies, and broader research in this space suggest that the future of U.S. policy, diplomacy, and the government’s ability to respond to crises will require improvements in four key areas. It will require better acquisition, distribution, and governance of technology across every branch of the U.S. government. It will require policymakers to address issues with the infrastructure that supports artificial and computational trafficking of false or fraudulent information. It will also require policymakers to better understand the impact of technology policy on society, human rights, and government interests— similarly to the way the Congressional Budget Office evaluates the likely effect of Congressional policies on the federal budget. Most critically, it will require the U.S. government and policymakers to better understand and engage informal, organic networks of individuals and groups who have greater access to technology and tools that provide them with an unprecedented amount of power, connectedness, and effectiveness.  

At critical moments in U.S. history, enlightened public servants have often worked collaboratively to redesign and reconstruct the U.S. government and U.S. policies to respond to modern governance challenges. Recent crises suggest that another such effort and new approaches to technology and the preservation of information integrity are warranted, and that robust research supporting those efforts will be critical.  

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bogan, Leisel.Crises, Technology, Information Integrity, and the Future of Policy .” Perspectives on Public Purpose, November 9, 2021,

The Author

Liesel Bogan headshot