I was giving a speech to a group of citizens visiting Washington for a fly-in, and was asked this question: “What’s the most frustrating obstacle to enhancing the democratic dialog between citizens and Congress?” I surprised myself by responding quickly: “Bad writing.”
The problem starts with Capitol Hill misusing the most ubiquitous tool for interacting with constituents: email. Despite its prevalence for more than 20 years, most in Congress have not adapted their writing for the electronic medium. Instead most staff and members continue to write “letters” — five- to eight-paragraph missives filled with policy jargon and intended to be typed on a piece of paper, folded into an envelope and mailed through the U.S. Postal Service. But of course what’s really happening is Congress is sending these constituent communications via email, and not adapting to the “new” media.
Emails should be concise with clear content and links to additional policy information. Most congressional communications (written for the “letter format”) are long and windy. Emails should be informal and friendly. Instead Congress uses formal language, confusing acronyms and attempts to persuade the reader, rather than demonstrating accountability and building a connection to the constituent.
And emails to constituents should be short — 100 words to 200 words. On some level this is difficult. Remember the Mark Twain quote, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” If the legislative correspondent invests the time to craft a shorter message, it makes the overall mail operation more efficient. Think of a congressional mail operation as an assembly line. The most expensive employees in the production process are at the end: the legislative director, the chief of staff and the lawmaker. The lengthier the draft email, the more editing time involved for the senior staff. So shorter emails not only fit the media’s format, they save senior staff time.
At this point many readers are saying, “But it’s the MEMBER/SENATOR who is the problem! He wants to make a policy argument to the constituent!” This leads me to another fundamental error Congress makes in interacting with constituents: the misguided belief they can change people’s mind on an issues . . . with an email. Congress is made up of debaters (many are lawyers). When presented with an argument opposing their view, their DNA screams at them to argue. How many of you have heard this from your boss: “If constituents just know my reasoning behind my position, then they’ll understand!” Yeah, right.
MSNBC and Fox News are bellowing at Americans 24/7, and you’re going to win them over with an 800-word email? This exercise becomes even more futile when you consider that recent research suggests that one driver of conservative or liberal thinking is embedded in the brain’s structure and neurological makeup. As the Congressional Management Foundation’s Susie Gorden says in her legislative correspondence class in the House Learning Center, “You’re not going to change people’s brain chemistry with a letter.”
Instead, legislators and staff should approach this valuable and personal interaction with constituents with two goals in mind. First, build a connection to the constituent. I read a draft response to a constituent who was asking the Federal Aviation Administration require GPS devices be put on crates used to transport pets on airplanes in case they get lost or misdirected. The response started, “Thank you for contacting me regarding animal rights.” No! The response should have started, “Like you, I’m a pet owner, and would be terrified if I landed in Miami and my dog was in Tucson alone in a strange storage facility.”
The second goal is even more important: Make sure the constituent knows you’re listening. Congress bemoans its low approval rating, but I think a more disturbing statistic came up in poll last year which asked Americans if they agree with this sentence, “My representative in Congress cares what I think.” Only 16 percent responded yes. Constituents don’t necessarily insist that you agree with them on every issue, but they do rightfully insist that their voice is heard. With a bit more effort to improve congressional correspondence, more citizens might actually believe that Congress is listening.
Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.