CMF Tries to End E-mail ‘Arms Race’

Posted October 1, 2007 at 6:38pm

Judson Blewett has been dealing with constituent correspondence for a long time.

First as an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and now as the information technology officer for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Blewett helps staffers respond to the thousands of e-mails received by their bosses each day.

But it isn’t easy.

“Our legislative correspondents sit there and sort and merge and process and clean, and sort and merge and process and clean,” he said. “It’s all they do.”

Blewett was among the legions of frustrated Congressional staffers, advocates and vendors who voiced their e-mail apprehensions during a conference sponsored by the Congressional Management Foundation on Monday.

The discussions will be used to help form a comprehensive report on what Capitol Hill offices can do to better cope with the surge in e-mail, said Beverly Bell, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Expected to be released next year, the report will be filled with best-practice recommendations that Members can implement in their offices. It also is likely to give tips to the slew of advocacy groups and vendors trying to get messages to Congress.

“Neither side really understands the other side,” noted Tim Hysom, CMF’s director of communications and technology services. “But the interesting thing is that both have the same goal.”

New statistics show that Americans expect to be able to communicate with Member offices: CMF released results of a survey conducted two weeks ago that found 79 percent of Americans have contacted a Senator or Representative during the past five years.

Conducted by Zogby International from Sept. 21 to 24, the survey confirmed what most on Capitol Hill probably already knew — the bulk of constituent communications are coming via the Internet.

Of those who contacted a Member, 69 percent used e-mail, a form on a lawmaker’s Web site or an online petition as their most recent method of communication.

The interactive survey of 9,536 adult Americans had a 1-point margin of error.

But just as Congressional staffers are frustrated with the e-mail onslaught — more than 313 million e-mails were sent to Congress in 2006 — advocates and vendors said they are upset that the correspondence they send to Members might not be getting the attention it deserves.

Technical barriers such as logic puzzles, misperceptions that vendors send out spam, confusing user experiences and a lack of universal standards (keep in mind Members’ offices basically are 540 small businesses) contribute to the problem, according to Mike Panetta, assistant vice president of public affairs and emerging media for the consultant group Grassroots Enterprise.

“It’s an arms race,” said Panetta, also D.C.’s shadow representative. “And at the end of the day, an arms race really hurts the people.”

Perhaps the most vocal advocate for the advocates was Alan Rosenblatt, the associate director for online advocacy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Although he expressed some sympathy for staffers, Rosenblatt argued that it doesn’t really matter how overwhelmed people are on Capitol Hill because constituent correspondence is in the Members’ job description.

“These are serious issues that go to the core of democracy,” Rosenblatt said.

It is important to remember that most of the people sending e-mails to Congress really care about the issue they are fighting for, noted Grace Markarian, online communications manager for the Humane Society of the United States.

When the Humane Society asks its members to contact their lawmakers, there usually is a specific bill or event that sparks that correspondence, Markarian said.

“We don’t want to get our people all agitated and emotional if there’s not really something for them to do,” she said.

While solutions aren’t clear, several officials from the public and private sector put forth ideas to ease the e-mail edginess.

Perhaps the biggest problem Congressional staffers encounter when dealing with e-mail is trying to verify the messages they receive come from actual people, noted Larry Bradley, the associate director of Gartner Consulting.

One potential solution could come from the General Services Administration, which has begun a program that allows citizens to use existing electronic credentials from their bank, company or other organization to identify themselves, Bradley said.

Other ideas would see a shift from a Member-based communications system to one that is constituent-based, Bradley noted. Under one model, an individual’s communications would be stored in his or her own Member’s database, but the constituent would have an online identity that could be shared throughout Congress.

Like a Congressional MySpace.

There are things Members can do in the meantime to help reduce the problem, officials noted.

Rob Pierson, president of the House Systems Administrators Association, suggested that stakeholders create a structured data format for Congressional communications.

Members already utilize the markup language known as XML to help sort data, Pierson said. But to better utilize XML, advocacy groups would need to be more specific in their correspondence, including things such as contact information, legislation and a short title, allowing Member offices to sort through mail faster.

Many speakers agreed that it is important advocates avoid sending out form letters, which are easily spotted by Congressional staffers and quick to be ignored.

Douglas Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said it is up to advocacy groups and vendors to educate their members on how best to contact their representative.

Pinkham added: “There’s now a movement toward if someone’s going to write their Member of Congress, they use their own words.”