Conference Focuses on E-mail Frustration Felt by Congress and Advocacy Groups
On Oct.1, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working to improve the effectiveness of Congress, held a forum on constituent communications with Congress. The goal of the conference was to "identify ways to make it easier for citizens to express their views to Congress in an effective way and for congressional offices to manage and get value from the communications they receive." The massive amount of e-mail Congress receives from constituents was the main topic of discussion. Both nonprofit advocacy groups and congressional staffers agreed that the current approach to e-mail communications works for neither side, but they were unable to find common ground on solutions. CMF will release a draft report in early 2008 on the conference and its research on the topic, with the goal of fostering a new model of constituent communications with Congress.
E-mail communications have provided advocacy groups and citizens with a cheap and easy way to communicate with their representatives in Congress. In 2004, according to a CMF chart, Congress received over 200 million e-mails, up from 50 million in 1995. In a survey CMF conducted of congressional staff, nearly eighty percent agreed that the Internet has made it easier for Americans to engage in public policy.
In his conference presentation, Doug Pinkham of the Public Affairs Council argued that Internet and e-mail technologies have given rise to a boom in grassroots activity by both companies and nonprofits. Looking ahead, Pinkham believes grassroots advocacy, and the constituent communications to Congress that come with it, will only increase. According to Pinkham, "Public policy issues are becoming increasingly high stakes, which motivates all sorts of groups to weigh in. At the same time, many of these issues — from trade promotion authority to stem cell research to environmental restrictions — are also becoming increasingly complex, which means that there will be an even more urgent need in congressional offices to figure out 'what the voters really want' back home."
Congressional staffers, however, are finding it difficult to manage and respond to the mass amount of e-mail they receive on a daily basis. Congressional staffer Judson Blewett, from the office of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), identified a set of problems he sees in the current approach to e-mail communications. Blewett testified, "Logistically speaking, many of these problems seem to fall into a set: 'insufficient man hours available.' They also all seem to fit into a 'complete lack of standards between Congress and advocacy groups' box as well. I think that co-operation and a set of rules or procedures between advocacy groups and Congressional offices is critical to resolving this problem."
Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress Action Fund discussed the issue of e-mail communications from the perspective of the advocacy community. He argued that this type of dialogue with Congress, on behalf of citizens, is a critical means for advocacy organizations to try to realize their objectives. Rosenblatt observed, "Perhaps the biggest problem in this morass is that Congress, more often than not, seeks to manage their communications with constituents, often at arms' length. But e-mail offers an enormous opportunity to deepen relations with constituents….It is very sad that this golden opportunity often is seen as a problem."
In its summary of the testimony, CMF identified four implications from the conference of importance to the advocacy community.
- Quality is more important than quantity (Because congressional offices prioritize personalized messages over bulk e-mails they perceive not to be "real", advocacy groups would likely benefit from encouraging constituents not to send e-mails with the exact same message.)
- The organization behind a grassroots campaign matters (Congress pays attention to the messenger as well as the message. Consequently, campaigns where the leading organization fails to identify itself are unlikely to have impact.)
- Grassroots organizations should develop a better understanding of Congress (Better understanding of how congressional offices manage e-mail and other communications would allow advocacy organizations to convey their ideas more effectively.)
- There is a difference between being noticed and having an impact (E-mail communications affect an organization's reputation with congressional members and staffers. Aim for influence, not annoyance.)