E-communications Swamp Hill

Posted July 8, 2005 at 6:13pm

Thanks to the Internet, last year Capitol Hill offices received four times the number of constituent communications than they did a decade ago. But Congress’ inability to adapt to the ever-advancing pace of online communications has left many Members and constituents disconnected, according to a report released today by the Congressional Management Foundation.

The study, “Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy,” found that last year Congress received 200,388,993 individual e-mail and postal communications from constituents, up from about 50 million in 1995. While virtually all communications in 1995 came through through the U.S. mail, the House and Senate combined received only 7.5 percent of all messages by traditional postal services last year.

According to report author and CMF Deputy Director Brad Fitch, the project was developed when “CMF began noticing that staff and offices were struggling with constituent communication. … The Internet, relatively speaking, happened quickly, and both sides are doing the best they can to cope with it.”

In general, the 350 Congressional staffers interviewed by CMF seem to agree that the 300 percent increase in the use of the Internet to communicate with Congress has had a positive effect on the discourse between citizens and Congress.

“If we saw a 300 percent increase in voter participation we would say this is a great thing,” Fitch said. “Whether Congress likes it or not, it’s a hot property, and that’s a good thing for democracy.”

But as more letters have come pouring in, staffing levels in Hill offices have not changed in the past decade. Aides interviewed for the report noted that Hill offices are being forced to devote increasing numbers of finite resources to managing the growing volume of constituent communications.

“We were hearing from both sides of the communication equation that they were frustrated,” said co-author and CMF Director of Technology Research Kathy Goldschmidt. “It’s leading to a lot of communications breakdowns and misunderstandings.”

We’re “really losing sight of the important letters that come in,” one House legislative director told CMF, “like the three-page letter from grandma as opposed to those floods of mail where all they’re doing is clicking a button. It’s insane.”

Of the office managers surveyed, 73 percent said their office spends more time on constituent communications than they did just two years ago.

The problem, according to the report, is that in many cases, office information-technology resources are not being utilized efficiently. For example, only 25 percent of House offices and 59 percent of Senate offices respond to e-mail communications with e-mail. The rest send a postal reply which not only costs money for a stamp, envelope and paper but also time in folding, stuffing and paying for man hours to do it. In addition, many Congressional offices still operate on a “two-week turnaround” rule to constituent messages, a system that was developed during an era when most communications to Capitol Hill came through the postal system.

The report cited such reluctance to embrace IT tools in communications practices as the cause of “significant management problems.”

“Many Hill offices continue to view technology as merely providing new tools to accomplish the same tasks they have always performed,” the report states. For example, PDAs such as PalmPilots are seen as replacements for paper schedulers, and Web sites are viewed as direct-mail pages that can be viewed on a computer.

“The Internet has gone far beyond simply providing new tools to perform old tasks. In order to adapt to the new environment that the Internet has created, Congress must adopt an entirely new communications paradigm,” according to the study.

Some offices are already starting to make that move. On Rep. Frank Lucas’ (R-Okla.) Web site, which Press Secretary Jim Luetkemeyer said was completely overhauled a year and a half ago to keep up with constituent needs, users can not only simply e-mail the Congressman, but also request a meeting with Lucas, to be added to the Congressman’s e-mail news list, to have flags flown and much more.

“Frank is very tech savvy,” Luetkemeyer said. “He’s one of those Members who is plugged into the Internet all the time. … Every time he does a radio call or interview he will direct constituents to his Web site where they can e-mail him. It’s the fastest way to get the information to him.”

The CMF report calls on Congress to establish a task force to identify how new tools, such as interactive Web sites, Web logs and podcasts, could be adopted on the Hill.

“Diversifying the communications tools available to the public and Congress could potentially increase both the quality of communications and the number of people who can interact with Members of Congress, while at the same time providing more manageable opportunities for interaction to occur,” the report reads.

It also states that grass-roots organizations should rethink the way they communicate with Congress: Quantity is not as important as quality.

Only 3 percent of staff surveyed say identical form postal mail would have “a lot” of influence on a Member if he or she had not reached a decision on an issue, and half of all those surveyed believe that identical form communications are sent without constituents’ knowledge. On the other hand, 44 percent felt that individualized postal letters would have “a lot” of influence.

Short, targeted and personalized communications are the most effective, the report states. In addition, grass-roots organizations should understand that there is a difference between being noticed by a Congressional office and having an impact.

“Some grassroots organizations see it as a challenge or a point of pride to attract a member’s attention by effectively shutting down his or her office” with high volumes of e-mails, faxes or phone calls, the report states. This “practice does attract the attention of Members and staff, but it sometimes causes Members and staff to mistrust the organization that generates the campaign.”

“Form letters are a waste of everyone’s time,” one House correspondence staffer told CMF. “What we care about is that a constituent not only took the time to write a communication to us, but that he/she understands the fundamentals of the issue at hand and makes a rational, well-conceived argument for the position.”

The “Communicating with Congress” study is the first of a four-part series that CMF will release over the next two years in an effort to offer guidance toward better communication between Members and those they represent.