Thousands of flags fly over the Capitol. They want to track them

It’s become a quest for the Modernization Staff Association

Modernization Staff Association founder Ananda Bhatia and fellow staffer Anna Whitney, right, are on a mission to improve tracking for the more than 100,000 flags that fly over the Capitol each year. Above, they pose outside their workplace holding miniature versions.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Modernization Staff Association founder Ananda Bhatia and fellow staffer Anna Whitney, right, are on a mission to improve tracking for the more than 100,000 flags that fly over the Capitol each year. Above, they pose outside their workplace holding miniature versions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 6:15am

If people can find out when their pizza is out for delivery, they should be able to see when a flag from their member of Congress is headed their way too. 

That’s what Ananda Bhatia thought as she fielded calls about the American flags that fly over the Capitol, which anyone can buy and dedicate to loved ones. 

“I think it’s easy to think of these problems as small potatoes issues, but constituents really care about flags and getting them on time,” she said. “Flags are meaningful to people.”

Bhatia founded the Modernization Staff Association two years ago to help junior aides on Capitol Hill, and this is one task she sees as ripe for an overhaul. Around 100,000 flags flow through the program each year, and that means a lot of flag questions.

“Flags aren’t very time-consuming until someone calls and says they have a problem or want to figure out where it is,” she said. “Right now it can take hours or days to figure out.”

The program began in 1937, when a member of Congress asked to take a flag as a keepsake, according to the Architect of the Capitol website. Now they fly on special flagpoles on the roof of the Capitol. Each flag gets run up the flagpole for 30 seconds and comes with an authenticity certificate that can be personalized. 

People order them for all sorts of reasons, often to mark an anniversary, death or other occasion. Flags fly every day that weather allows, except New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The smallest option is 3 feet by 5 feet, and prices begin at $20. 

Architect of the Capitol employees do the actual flying, but if you want a flag, you must request it from your representative or senator, where junior staffers stand ready to help. Though the steps vary in the House and Senate, aides on both ends of the Capitol end up playing phone tag with a bunch of offices if one goes missing. 

“So the idea is if we create a ‘Domino’s Pizza tracker’ for flags,” said Bhatia, who now works as a legislative assistant for the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “Then constituents can see where the flag is in the process, and hopefully, they don’t need to call in.” 

Bhatia teamed up with Senate-side flag crusader Anna Whitney. The legislative correspondent for Sen. Cory Booker sought out the staff association when she encountered flag-related woes — part of the Senate process still included keeping up with paper forms. 

“Just as one person, there’s no way to coordinate a change like this,” Whitney said. “It just needed that push from an organization.”

Members of the bipartisan staffer group have met with officials working for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and the House Chief Administrative Officer, discussing issues important to junior staff like flag tracking and ways to ease pain points. 

While the ideal solution would be one system for both sides of the Capitol, that’s not likely for now — the Senate and House are notorious for coming up with different ways to do everything from payroll to food service.

The group brought a prototype created by Code for America programmers to House officials to demonstrate a potential solution, Bhatia said. But the next steps are unclear. 

“Several improvements to the ordering system have taken place during the past several years,” said Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the CAO. “The CAO’s House Digital Services and Innovation Lab and our partner organizations are always looking to improve processes, including tracking, for constituents and member offices.”

Scratching out starting from scratch 

When Bhatia was a junior staffer working in a House office, there were three systems she dealt with on a regular basis that she saw as needing improvement: room and tour reservations and the process of getting flags to constituents. 

“I had already been informally having meetings with other junior staffers,” she said. “It just made it easier to have a formal organization advocating on behalf of these changes instead of doing it on my own.”

Those three issues became the foundation of the MSA, which holds social and professional events, like many staff associations on the Hill. 

When the pandemic hit and employees were sent to work at home, reservation system overhauls were back-burnered in favor of creating resources for new and isolated staff assistants and legislative correspondents getting their bearings. The group also helps direct people to other Hill groups and places to find affordable workwear or housing.    

This summer, the group is launching a program pairing interns in the House and Senate with junior staff mentors. They already have more than 100 mentors signed up, Bhatia said. 

It can be hard to build connections when Congress is essentially a baggy collection of hundreds of separate lawmaker offices. Bhatia said she hopes the organization, which now has over 400 members, can be a link for junior staff across the institution.

That way there’s less time spent figuring out how to do a job and more time spent doing it. 

“It just feels like there’s so much reinventing of the wheel that happens on the Hill, when there’s so much innovation happening at the same time,” she said. “It’s important for people to be able to find each other and just share their ideas.”