Constituent communications went digital due to COVID-19, and that could stick, report says

Some top aides worry staff don’t know when to turn off

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis participates in a conference call on July 21 while sitting in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis participates in a conference call on July 21 while sitting in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 14, 2020 at 7:00am

Congress has ramped up email newsletter frequency, videoconferencing and telephone town halls to stay connected to constituents as the coronavirus pandemic transforms daily life. And a new report suggests some of those shifts could be here to stay.

The Congressional Management Foundation on Friday released a report, “The Future of Citizen Engagement: Coronavirus, Congress, and Constituent Communications,” that explores how congressional offices have implemented changes to operations and constituent engagement in response to COVID-19.

According to the group’s research, because of the move to remote work and tight restrictions on in-person meetings on Capitol Hill, lawmakers and their staff are embracing new technologies, while also depending more heavily on established ones, to keep in contact with constituents and advocates.

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“While we are currently in flux, the COVID-19 crisis is offering (or forcing) new opportunities for Congress, citizens, and the groups that represent them to consider how to build new tools and systems for democratic communication,” report authors Kathy Goldschmidt and Bradley Joseph Sinkaus write.

The report compared the significant shift in communication happening today to when 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill interrupted the mail system in Congress, accelerating the adoption of email.

The authors predict communications changes put in place during this crisis and expectations of digital outreach may hold fast, just like emails continued to flood Capitol Hill even after the postal mail system for Congress was restored in 2002.

“COVID-19 has forced Members of Congress and staff (some of whom have been fairly resistant to or unfamiliar with modern technologies) to quickly learn how to work remotely,” Goldschmidt and Sinkaus write.

Between May 26 and July 23, the foundation sent surveys to senior congressional staff, and heard back from 128 of them. Of that group, 13 were interviewed for more detailed responses. During the same time frame, but with no coordination, CQ Roll Call was regularly talking to lawmakers about staffing and technology changes they had made because of the pandemic.

The report highlights that, despite communicating at all hours and between time zones with district offices, few offices were ready with the technology or had policies in place for everyone to work remotely at once.

In March, CQ Roll Call reported on the new House Telework Readiness Center in the Rayburn Cafeteria, staffed by experts from House Information Resources to provide staffers with the technical assistance necessary to prepare to work remotely. The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer ordered 1,500 laptops to help meet the needs of member offices ahead of the anticipated telework.

California Democrat Susan A. Davis, for instance, needed a new computer because the one she had been using didn’t support the videoconferencing programs needed for committee business and constituent work.

Other members had been resistant to adopting new technologies or were highly dependent on staffers to operate the digital side of their daily work. But the CMF report shows that some members have started to warm to the digital world.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said their bosses were more open to using technology to engage with constituents than before the pandemic struck. Others have been forced to adapt as committee hearings and other legislative business moved online.

When the Capitol was closed to visitors and staff began working remotely, the typical flood of spring advocacy meetings and fly-in days dried up. Three-quarters of respondents in the CMF report said they had done significantly fewer facility and site visits, and 88 percent said they had done significantly fewer in-person meetings with constituents in May and June.

The report’s findings show that to fill the void of in-person meetings, lawmakers leaned on technological solutions. Sixty-five percent of respondents said their bosses were doing more video calls with constituents than before the pandemic. Forty-seven percent said their offices were hosting more tele-town halls, and 44 percent had increased online and video town halls.

In June, CQ Roll Call reported on the sense of urgency lawmakers were feeling to get information on stemming the spread of the disease and on emergency resources for district residents. Data provided by the House Franking Commission showed that the pandemic had resulted in a huge uptick in volume of franked materials in recent months, from radio ads to postal mail, to robocalls and emails.

In early March, the House waived the standard 90-day “blackout period” for government-funded mailings ahead of any primary or general election or caucus for any federal, state or local election in which a member is a candidate. That has left lawmakers free to send updates to constituents on the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, details on direct payments to families and other coronavirus materials.

A sizable majority, 61 percent of respondents in the CMF report, said franked mass mailings became more important as the pandemic bore down on the nation. Twenty-eight percent said they expected their offices to increase time and staff resources in the future for franked communications.

The CMF survey responses revealed that just as there was an uptick in outgoing communications from Congress to constituents, constituents were also flooding offices with calls and emails filled with questions and concerns about the pandemic.

As constituents needed help with stimulus checks, small business loans and new unemployment policies, they called their senators and representatives.

“These are substantive and often emotional interactions with constituents that sometimes require significant time to resolve,” Goldschmidt and Sinkaus write.

Eighty-two percent of respondents indicated that their offices had increased the financial and personnel resources dedicated to constituent engagement, and 59 percent said COVID-19 had resulted in their offices having “substantive interactions with more constituents.”

New considerations

The increase in constituent needs and the elimination of the distinct boundaries between work and home in some cases has raised a new problem.

“One Chief of Staff mentioned that one of the biggest challenges they faced during this time was something you don’t normally hear about government employees: How to get their team to stop working,” the report states.

CQ Roll Call’s interviews with lawmakers about constituent services match what staffers told the CMF in surveys and interviews — that even though Capitol Hill seems quiet, many staffers are more busy than ever.

“One House Chief of Staff indicated that communications in their office had increased 700% during the first two months of COVID-19,” the report notes.

In June, multiple House members told CQ Roll Call that constituent needs had increased dramatically due to the pandemic.

Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, is among the lawmakers who found themselves shifting staff around to cover the expanded need for constituent services, assigning staffers who don’t usually work on casework to pitch in.

“Each of our case workers back in the district are just bombarded between the unemployment, PUA, the PPP,” Ryan told CQ Roll Call in June, referencing the array of federal aid programs changed or expanded in the coronavirus relief packages.

“We’ve been fully engaged. We’re getting hammered with casework,” he said.

Rep. Bradley Byrne said it was challenging for staffers working from home, fielding emotional calls from constituents who are distraught. The Alabama Republican told CQ Roll Call in June that an uptick in participation in his telephone town halls had also led to an increase in constituent questions and cases that need to be handled by staff.

That aligns with the CMF’s findings that digital and tele-town halls feed constituent engagement.

Staffers reported that online and telephone town halls had gained importance, both to convey information to constituents, but also to learn about constituents’ views and opinions.

Newsletter explosion

The staffer surveys and interviews showed that email newsletters to constituents have gained importance in recent months, and 45 percent of respondents felt they were “significantly more important” than previously.

“Interviews with senior staffers indicated that some offices increased the frequency of their email newsletters, sometimes sending daily updates. They also found their email updates during COVID-19 were more likely to be forwarded and to generate new subscribers than their previous efforts,” Goldschmidt and Sinkaus write.

Will it stick?

Even when the pandemic abates and visitors, lobbyists and constituents are allowed back on Capitol Hill, many offices represented in the CMF study said they planned to keep some of the remote contact tools in place.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they expected to increase resources and time devoted to remote engagement with individual constituents, and 60 percent said they’d continue to invest in online town hall meetings in the future.

But those additional resources would mean reducing in another area. Sixty-seven percent of respondents expected their offices to decrease resources for in-person meetings in Washington and 53 percent expected decreases in their home state or district.

Staffers interviewed by the CMF said that while virtual meetings don’t perfectly replicate in-person interactions, there are benefits, including reaching constituents who would never be able to attend an in-person meeting. They also said the time savings of not having to travel, especially in large rural districts and states, could benefit lawmakers and constituents.

Goldschmidt and Sinkaus are hopeful that continued utilization of modern communication tools could lead to more robust engagement between constituents and their representatives in the long term.

“Ironically, these changes might just result in a Congress that creatively explores and adopts new ways to be responsive to their constituents and builds greater trust in our democratic institutions,” they write.