E-mail Overloads Hill Offices

Posted July 11, 2007 at 6:08pm

The Congressional Management Foundation, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group that provides operational advice to Congress, is in the midst of a project designed to tackle what it has long seen as a major problem facing Members and their staff: e-mail overload.

Take Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), whose e-mail system has begun crashing on a weekly basis because of all the incoming correspondence, according to staffer Rob Pierson.

“While it’s great constituents now have so many additional tools to contact the Congressman, the system was never organized and structured to fully take advantage of the technologies that are out there,” said Pierson, who also heads the House System Administrators Association.

“It’s gotten to a point where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to manage,” he added.

While most Members might not get as much e-mail as Honda — he does hail from the tech-savvy Silicon Valley, after all — staffers in both chambers have reached a breaking point when it comes to dealing with constituent communications, said Tim Hysom, director of communications and technology services for CMF.

And there’s equal frustration from constituents, advocacy groups and the vendors who help people deliver their messages to Capitol Hill, Hysom said.

“The frustration level, we think especially in Congressional offices, has reached a fever pitch,” Hysom said. “We think CMF might sort of be uniquely positioned to bring all these players to the table to bring about a solution.”

The foundation already has begun that effort. A few weeks ago, CMF brought together a small group of staffers (many of whom are involved in maintaining the institution of Congress), advocates and vendors to hash out the issues. In the fall, the foundation hopes to host similar meetings with larger groups to help identify what can be done to fix the problem, Hysom said.

The overall goal is to increase the quality of communication between Members and the constituents for whom they work. The means aren’t yet so clear.

“We don’t really have a preconceived notion of what a solution looks like,” Hysom said.

An aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said officials are working on ways to improve methods of constituent communication.

“The Internet has brought civic engagement in real time to an all time high, to the benefit of both citizens and elected officials,” the aide said. “Like any organization in the Internet age, we are looking at ways we can better facilitate this communication. We appreciate CMF’s attention to this issue and are looking forward to working in a bipartisan and bicameral way to find the best solutions.”

An Arms Race
The meetings follow up on a 2005 CMF report that found Congressional offices are spending more time than ever dealing with communication from constituents. Congress received more than 200 million individual e-mail and postal communications in 2004, according to the study, and only 7.5 percent came through the mail.

While the foundation doesn’t have specific data since the report was released, it’s a safe bet that the number of e-mails sent to Congress only has skyrocketed in the past two and a half years, Hysom said.

And over time, the amount of e-mail coming into Congress has created a communications arms race between Congressional offices and the people trying to get their message to Members.

Here’s how it happened:

The original e-mail addresses assigned to Members were public, allowing anybody to send messages. But after too much e-mail came in that way, most offices switched to Web forms, requiring the public to send messages directly from Member Web sites.

But eventually even that got too messy, so many offices put logic puzzles on their Web sites, forcing e-mailers to decode a simple puzzle before sending their message.

“And now there are advocacy groups who found their way around the logic puzzle,” Hysom said. “So, some Congressional offices are blocking [Internet protocol] addresses.”

The addition of the logic puzzles was especially controversial when they first appeared last year.

It led to the creation of a coalition called “Don’t Block My Voice,” which then sent e-mails urging Members who had begun using the logic puzzles to take them down.

Among those who helped with the effort was Grace Markarian, the online communications manager for The Humane Society of the United States. While Markarian admitted the puzzles themselves aren’t difficult to decipher, she said it is the psychological barrier the puzzles present that is troubling.

“It just feels a little funny,” she said. “It’s just an additional barrier to people. And why should there be barriers?”

Markarian said many groups and constituents who have legitimate issues to bring to Members are frustrated because it is becoming exceedingly difficult to address such matters with their Representatives.

She pointed out that while most Members have information on their Web sites about the big issues, it is sometimes difficult to find enough stuff on other matters — requiring correspondence.

“For our part, it’s not likely that you are going to find an extensive argument about animal welfare issues on their Web page,” she said.

And the easiest way to request answers to those issues is through e-mail.

“That’s actually, I believe, the expectation for people who are online,” Markarian said. “And lots and lots more people, more voters, more constituents are online these days.”

Another roadblock is that some staffers, fed up with the amount of e-mail that they must sort through each day, stop seeing the messages as coming from actual constituents.

“They are under the impression, many of them, that these are databases,” Hysom said.

Which simply is not true, Markarian argued.

“We do have a valid place at the table,” she said. “We really are all trying to work for the same purpose.”

Finding Solutions
Fixing the situation won’t be easy, experts admit, and there are many reasons for the communication conundrum, according to Kathy Goldschmidt, CMF’s deputy director.

For one, Congressional staff sizes haven’t increased since the 1970s, long before Members had e-mail or Web sites. And simply increasing staff levels might not be enough.

“Even if you threw more resources at them so they could hire more people, there isn’t any place to put them,” Hysom noted.

It also is worth noting that Congress is unique compared to state legislatures and even international parliamentary bodies in that it functions more like 540 small businesses working together than as a solid institution, Goldschmidt said.

So, while other bodies also deal with large amounts of constituent e-mail, they can develop more unified methods of tackling the problem.

“I don’t see the Congress behaving as a unified institution,” she said. “But the House and the Senate individually may need to move in that direction.”

Members could find a lot more tools are available to tackle the problem if they work together, mainly because the tools needed are expensive.

“They would have to do it at an enterprise level in order to make it affordable,” Goldschmidt said.

Some European bodies have tackled similar problems with e-mail overload by creating Internet forums for specific issues.

One such Web site, mysociety.org, serves as an intermediary to help British subjects contact their member of Parliament. People can address a range of specific questions through the site or simply send an e-mail asking what their MP has done recently.

But even though enterprise solutions have worked for other groups, Congress is facing a unique problem: Even some of the biggest corporations don’t deal with the amount of e-mail that Congress receives. When Goldschmidt met with a corporate analyst on the issue a few years ago, he was “flabbergasted” by how much e-mail Congress gets, she recalled.

“This analyst was shocked. No corporation could do it,” Goldschmidt said. “And if they had to, they could apply more resources.”

There is some hope. In the 2005 report, CMF recommended a number of measures to deal with large amounts of e-mail — including by using the Internet as a response tool.

Only 25 percent of the House offices and 59 percent of Senate offices that took part in that study responded to e-mail communications with e-mails. (The others used the postal system, which requires more supplies and man-hours.)

And that report also urged advocacy groups to do their part to reduce the e-mail logjam. Many of these organizations simply shut down Member offices with a flood of e-mails, faxes and phone calls — accomplishing nothing more than making staffers even more frustrated.

Instead, constituents should take the time to write thoughtful, personalized letters to Members, the report recommended.

Pierson agreed.

“When people put more effort into their correspondence, in my mind, it takes on more meaning,” he said.

There is potential for change to take place on Capitol Hill, Pierson said. During the previous Congress, a bipartisan group of about 50 information technology staffers met with the House Administration Committee to discuss fixes — and those in attendance were enthusiastic about finding a resolution, he said.

And both Pierson and Markarian said they are optimistic things will improve. The pair agreed that communication between all parties will be key to solving the problem.

“I think people realize there’s a lot of potential for collaboration,” Pierson said.

Added Markarian: “It will certainly take some will on all sides to make it happen.”