Conversations with the Karass: Seamus Kraft

Seamus Kraft, founder of the OpenGov Foundation, participated in the first cohort of CtK.Campfire.

Interviewed by Lilly Constance

Lilly: Where do you currently work, and what is the project that is most consuming you right now?

Seamus: I work at The OpenGov Foundation. We are a non-profit civic technology start-up that began in the US Congress. Our mission is to serve those who serve others in America’s legislatures by building great technology and policy that support better governance. The project that is most consuming me right now is embedding user experience and product researchers in congressional offices, so we can for the first time ever understand the pain points and needs of those who work in Congress.

Lilly: Do you think your work is helping to combat hyper-partisanship?

Seamus: I very much hope so. Our work is focused on the critical infrastructure of our democracy, which is the most trans-partisan, beyond-partisanship thing you could imagine. Basic tools and basic processes aren’t working in Congress, and it’s frustrating the hell out of everybody. So whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Communist or Libertarian, you have a horrible experience engaging with your elected representatives. And no matter your political identity, those elected representatives and their staff have just as hard a time engaging with you. That’s about as nonpartisan an area in our civic life I have encountered.

I was working for Darrell Issa for a time. He’s a pretty “Republican” Republican and most of my friends and most of the civic tech community were the opposite: hard core progressive. But civic tech, this critical infrastructure of democracy, has continued to bring us together. Now we create a safe space for people to confront the challenges in their work and personal lives as it relates to our democracy.

Lilly: Can you think of a time when you had to pay a price for being cross-partisan?

Seamus: Some in the Right have written off civic tech as “hippy-dippy.” And we’ve paid a price with others because people on the Left couldn’t see beyond the fact that I used to work with Darrell Issa. But I’ve learned that if you’re not willing to have good relationships with people from a different political perspective, you’re probably not going to be a good partner in this very important, very apolitical work.

Lilly: Have you had to break ties with people who weren’t willing to “reach across the aisle?”

Seamus: Sure, but you just have to show up every day and not let the haters get you down.

Lilly: It sounds like you’ve been criticized by both parties, but would you say it’s easier to get Democrats and Republicans to collaborate on tech initiatives than in other policy areas?

Seamus: Yeah, that’s the understatement of the day. I’m sure there are other areas, but they are few and shrinking. In tech, party affiliation doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Lilly: Were you attracted to tech initially because of its non-partisan tendencies?

Seamus: It has kept me here. I’m able to have meaningful relationships with people who are wildly different, and that is one of the best parts about my job. But the part that really attracted me to this is that the issues we take on are solvable, affect everyone, and they matter. If you support and increase the empathic capacity of everybody in the United States Congress to effectively serve and listen to and engage with their constituents, that's a good thing for everybody.

Lilly: Could you tell me more about one of these relationships with somebody who is wildly different than you?

Seamus: The person who first comes to mind is Macon Phillips. For the first four years of Obama’s presidency he served as the first head of the White House Digital Office. And at the time I was doing that for the President’s chief accountability counterpoint in Congress, Darrell Issa. The first time we met, we just started unburdening ourselves about the challenges of transforming very bureaucratic, stuck-in-the-mud processes and approaches. Then we discovered we’re both into sports and we both love Phish. I realized that we have way more in common than maybe I do with somebody sitting in my Republican office. It was eye opening, and I’m so grateful the Fates brought us together.

Lilly: Why did you decide to participate in CtK.Campfire?

Seamus: The approach Lori is espousing is one that takes a lot more time and effort, but works. Investing in putting people together, physically together, in my experience is the only way that you build trust, understanding, and ultimately a relationship.

Lilly: In what ways did CtK.Campfire live up to your expectations or surpass them?

Seamus: I was really encouraged by the people there. Some of those relationships have continued and grown deeper in the last 6 months. I go to a lot of conferences where the goals are different. Connections do happen naturally on the sidelines. But then you go home and never talk to that person again. There’s not somebody fostering the connection for the connection: it’s about the transactional outcomes. CtK is the opposite.

Lilly: How does the concept of loyal antagonism influence your work and your behavior as a citizen?

Seamus: One of the things that made it a lot easier to leave Congress to start The OpenGov Foundation was how sick I was of not ever having opportunities to get to know human beings who have different perspectives. I had to work my butt off to form relationships with people who were different. Loyal antagonism is all about meeting different people as human beings first and foremost; that’s how life in general should be lived. So finding a group of people, and Lori in particular making it her mission to help me and others do that, I thought was enormous.

Loyal Antagonism is also advantageous. Not in that quick transactional sense, but keeping in mind that these are people who are going to be allies and peers forever. Having friends across the aisle who can be validators, who can be sounding boards, is smart and beneficial.

I feel like our country was built on the principle of loyal antagonism. Our founding documents were architected to be able to support and maintain a civic existence in a country of wildly disparate views. You’re supposed to be a loyal antagonist to be a good citizen in the U.S., and if you’re not, you’re not doing it right. What’s more important, to be a Republican or a Democrat or to be an American?