CMF Says New Technology Can Solve Workload Issues

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:14pm

The avalanche of e-mail that Members now receive means they need more resources to effectively communicate with their constituents, according to a report released today by the Congressional Management Foundation.

That finding won’t surprise most Capitol Hill staffers, who struggle to handle the more than 300 million e-mails sent to Congress every year. Sorting, reading and processing that e-mail is a monumental task — one that prevents Members from ever seeing the vast majority of it.

Congress has been slow to address the problem. Most solutions mean more money, and Members are keen to not appear as though they are spending money on themselves.

But the math is irrefutable: In 30 years, Congressional staff size has stayed almost stagnant, while the offices’ workload has skyrocketed. While only one staffer once handled constituent communications, now three-quarters of a Member’s staff are involved.

They need help, CMF officials say, either through a bigger budget, a larger staff or new technology.

“We understand that that’s a difficult issue to address,” said Tim Hysom, director of communications and technology services. But, he added, “one of primary roles of Congress is to provide constituent services. We really believe that’s money well spent.”

Still, CMF’s 80-page report offers some low-cost, short-term solutions.

One is to create software that automatically sorts incoming e-mails into groups based on whether they address specific bills, for example, or come through a certain advocacy group.

That way, staffers would be able to see automatically how many constituents share the mindset of a lobbying group or could quickly tabulate the pros and cons of a bill.

E-mail management systems do this already to some extent, but the programs still tend to treat each e-mail and message as a paper product, rather than as an Internet form capable of carrying multiple levels of information.

“It would save so much time,” said Rob Pierson, the online communications director for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and president of the House Systems Administrators Association.

If CMF’s recommendations were implemented, Pierson said, Members would be able to “more effectively gauge the sentiment in the district” and use that knowledge in making policy.

CMF’s report isn’t the first attempt to make Congress more tech-savvy. In 2006, the House released a 10-year strategic plan; so far, not much has come out of it.

But CMF officials are optimistic that this time, Members will listen. The report is the result of almost a decade of research on how Members and constituents communicate. Throughout, the nonprofit organization has worked with every stakeholder: Members, staffers, advocacy groups and the private companies that provide the e-mail software.

The hope is that Congress will put together a task force with all the groups and hash out solutions.

It’s not a small task. In recent years, Congressional offices have had a somewhat adversarial relationship with advocacy groups. The groups try to circumvent spam filters to deliver batches of letters from their members, while some Congressional offices continuously update software to identify and even avoid such “form letters.”

But Hysom argued that the two groups want the same result: meaningful communication between constituents and Members. And CMF’s research has shown that most constituents sending those form letters — written for them by an advocacy group — are nevertheless passionate about the issue.

“I think the reason why we could get real traction is because the solution is going to require collaboration,” Hysom said. “What’s clear from working with all of these stakeholders is that nobody thinks the current model is sustainable.”