E-mails Flooding Into Members’ Offices

Posted June 9, 2008 at 6:30pm

Members have heard from almost half of all Americans in the past five years, but their responses often leave an unfavorable impression, according to a recent study.

The study, released today, is the latest research from the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that works to improve the management of Congressional offices.

The findings describe an America full of voters who increasingly use the Internet to contact Members, and a Congress ill-equipped to handle that degree of constituent interest. “What we see on both sides is the desire to communicate with each other and the Internet making it faster and easier, but at the same time there are roadblocks and frustrations thrown up by the very ease that people can use the Internet,” said Beverly Bell, the executive director of CMF.

“People are used to doing things on the Internet and are used to immediate gratification, and Congressional offices aren’t set up for that,” she said.

In 2006 alone, Congress received 313 million e-mails — meaning thousands per month for each office. Members and staffers have long bemoaned the impossibility of answering all that correspondence, and many are forced to pick and choose what to read.

But CMF implies that this method might be turning away engaged citizens. The group reports that 91 percent of those who contacted Congress wanted a response, but only two-thirds actually got one on their most recent communication. And almost half of those thought that the response either didn’t answer their question or was too partisan.

CMF has studied the effect of the Internet on Congress for years. In 2005, it released a report on how staffers viewed constituent correspondence. This report is the second in that series and pulls from a phone and Internet survey. Both were conducted by Zogby International; the phone survey polled 1,071 random Americans, and the Internet survey polled 9,536 people who are part of a Zogby pool of volunteer respondents.

The results, Bell said, show that offices need to use their resources more effectively — by putting in-depth policy discussions on their Web sites or linking floor speeches and press releases, for example.

But the problem is also one of funding, she said. Congressional offices have kept the same number of staffers for years, while the constituent workload has skyrocketed. Many offices now share technical staffers to handle their Web pages and computer issues because they don’t have the resources to hire a full-time employee.

“We recognize that Hill offices could use more resources, and that’s never politically popular, of course,” Bell said. “Maybe it’s something that the House and Senate could take on at an institutional level.”

But in the meantime, offices have found other ways to handle their overflowing inboxes. For one, many staffers pay less attention to form letters — e-mails sent through advocacy organizations that tend to be carbon copies of each other.

But CMF found that most people wrote to Congress because they were asked by such organizations, and that most Internet users found information from interest groups more reliable than that from Congress.

Only 39 percent of those who contacted Congress felt Members were trustworthy, and 62 percent thought lawmakers didn’t care what they had to say.

And as more Americans learn that many offices don’t read all mail, constituents may get even more disillusioned, said Doug Pinkham, who helped with the report and is president of the Public Affairs Council.

His nonpartisan organization schools advocacy groups on how to lobby Congress. He compared Congressional offices to small businesses, which will need to change their customer service tactics as the Internet evolves. “I don’t think at this point the average person realizes what’s going on behind the curtain,” he said.

Already, the recommendations Pinkham gives to advocacy groups reflect a changing Congress. He says constituents should write only their own Members because other offices will ignore their letters, and to include keywords that e-mail software will pick up, such as “Iraq” or “Medicaid.”

And he says advocacy group members should be upfront — CMF found that 84 percent of those who contacted Congress did so because of an advocacy group.

“I think sometimes in politics, there’s a certain amount of game-playing that goes on, and I don’t think it serves either party well because both sides are pretty smart,” he said. “Be open and upfront about what you’re doing.”