Everyone knows Congress has an extremely low approval rating in the eyes of the American public. Yet, that rating is based on but a sliver of members of Congress covered by the news media and only a fraction their work. The media and the public are fixated on Congress’ legislative responsibilities and ignore legislators’ direct interactions with constituents, or their “customer service” work. Just think if we judged Amazon.com by its coverage in The New York Times instead of the services it delivers.
Most of the work done by Congress involves customer service elements: responding to questions (constituent mail), assisting customers with problems (casework) and delivering ad-hoc services (selling flags, conducting tours, etc.). Yet most congressional offices have only a vague idea of how those services are viewed by their customers. Members of Congress survey their constituents frequently — but not to gauge how they’re doing with their representational duties; rather, to assess how best to win re-election. But what if Congress viewed its job the way businesses do, and used the same tools as the private sector to evaluate customer satisfaction?
Few congressional offices have conducted genuine surveys of their constituents — most ask loaded questions designed to elicit only expected answers. The Congressional Management Foundation collaborated with a freshman member to develop a genuine customer service survey and the results even surprised us.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, took the bold move of surveying his constituents eight months into his freshman term in 2013. “The survey was important to do as early as possible, so we could measure trends and performance over time in order to make adjustments when constituents are clearly telling us something isn’t working,” Wenstrup said. His office reached out to the CMF for guidance on developing the survey tool, and we helped draft questions to prompt real data. The results and response rates were wildly successful; they would make even Amazon.com envious. Here’s how the office did it and the results.
The survey included generic, non-leading questions. The questions looked like a garden-variety customer service survey. “How would you rate your overall satisfaction with your experience with Rep. Wenstrup’s office?” The answers offered typical choices: very satisfied, satisfied, unsatisfied, very unsatisfied. If you want honest answers, you have to ask honest questions. “First and foremost, don’t be afraid of the answers,” said Derek Harley, Wenstrup’s chief of staff. “Sometimes, there can be a tendency to ask questions in a way that gets a particular response.”
The survey targeted constituents who interacted with the offices, omitting casework. The Wenstrup office already had tools for assessing constituents’ attitude about casework, and responses to casework can be misleading. You can do everything humanly possible to help a constituent who has an unreasonable request and still get an unsatisfactory mark on a survey. This survey targeted about 9,000 constituents who had sent in mail (84 percent of respondents) or engaged other services (16 percent).
The survey used available technology to target constituents. The Wenstrup office used technology in their correspondence management system, but any survey tool would work. While the Franking Commission had not encountered a survey of its type in the past, they approved the mass email questionnaire with relative ease.
The response rate was remarkable. The first survey in September 2013 garnered a 34 percent open rate, much higher than any industry average by any measurement. More than 10 percent of the recipients took the survey, a “conversion rate” four times higher than private sector comparisons. Of those surveyed, 75 percent rated their experience with the office “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”
Harley noted, “Many individuals who may not have seen eye-to-eye with the Congressman on a particular policy issue, still gave their response a favorable score. It shows that people simply appreciate knowing that their views are being heard.”
Campaign fundraisers often tell you to hit the constituent over the head with a hammer with your messaging, and too many legislators translate these communications tactics into their work in Congress. The Wenstrup email survey subject line simply said, “Your Feedback Matters to Me.”
Americans think Congress doesn’t care what they think. Prove them wrong. Ask basic, honest questions about serving your constituents, and you might be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer. Follow him on Twitter @congressfdn.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Derek Harley's name.