Paper Chase: Capitol Hill Gets Email -- Sends Snail Mail

Paper Chase: Capitol Hill Gets Email -- Sends Snail Mail

BY Kate Kaye | Wednesday, July 13 2005

Call it the first victory in online democracy. With just about every advocacy group in existence compelling its members to fire off emails to their Senators and Representatives, the volume of email and postal communications received by Congress has increased more than threefold since 1995. But have you ever wondered who’s on the other end of all those messages? Most likely some very frazzled Capitol Hill staffers.

The volume of email and postal communications received by Congress has skyrocketed from 23 million to 109 million in the House and 30 million to 91 million in the Senate since 1995, according to a new study from The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to help Congress become more productive and effective through better management. Of the offices CMF surveyed, 73 percent say they spend more time on constituent communications than two years ago. Half have reallocated resources to responding to communications in the past two years.

“Buried in this report and these numbers is an incredibly positive story,” asserts Sheeraz Haji, CEO of GetActive, a firm providing software to clients including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He points to the growth in Internet use among citizens and how it’s facilitated democratic participation.

Almost 80 percent of survey respondents believe the Internet has made it easier for citizens to get involved in public policy, and 53 percent agree that advocacy campaigns aimed at congress are good for democracy. Still, the Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy report notes that Hill staffers who participated in the study “also feel frustrated by the additional work [Internet communication] creates.”

A former Capitol Hill staffer herself, Susie Gordon, director of government outreach and citizen communication for advocacy software provider Capitol Advantage, views the rise in constituent communication as a great opportunity for congressional members, especially when one considers the amount of money and effort members put into garnering voter data and other information. “These are constituents that are reaching out to them telling them, ‘Hey, this is my contact information and this is what I’m interested in.’”

Form Letter Reform Needed
It's that personal touch that gets results: As PDF reported last month in a story on Web campaigns related to John Bolton’s UN nomination, impersonal, mass email campaigns can have less of a positive effect than personalized messages. When Congressional members haven’t firmly decided on a particular issue, 94 percent of the CMF survey participants said individualized messages had a lot or some influence on members’ decisions, compared to 63 percent who said form email messages had a lot or some influence in such situations. As the report concludes, “There is a difference between being noticed and having an impact.”

“We’re trying to spread the word as best we can” to advocacy groups regarding form letters, says CMF deputy director, Brad Fitch, who often speaks at grassroots group events and forums. But just because political advocates realize form message campaigns aren’t the best way to go, doesn’t mean they don’t conduct them anyway. Some groups must make sure supporters are constantly engaged and, in turn, willing to donate. This leads to an ironic outcome, explains Fitch, who says some advocacy groups end up employing form letter based campaign efforts with the primary objective of maintaining supporter interest, sometimes knowing that such mass, cookie-cutter email campaigns don’t necessarily work well.

Although in the end it’s all about “winning the game,” observes Fitch, “in the meantime, there’s this feeling that they’ve got to keep the troops activated.” CMF plans on delving deeper into this issue in an upcoming report.

Email Fear
But misconceptions about email and its power abound, according to CMF. Half of study participants believe that identical form communications are not sent with constituents’ knowledge or consent. Though CMF research indicates that such unscrupulous practices are not prevalent, Capitol Advantage, a provider of unrestricted funding for the study which received early report results, offers an authentication component for its Capwiz software.

GetActive provides tools that enable message senders to alter subject lines and text, and also allow organizations to hardcode text so it cannot be changed. While Haji is concerned that folks on the Hill doubt the legitimacy of some messages, he believes the skepticism “points to a need for better communication between Congress, organizations using these technologies and vendors involved in the process.” GetActive delivered more than 13 million faxes, postal letters and emails in 2004. “I’m very comfortable that the activists sending those letters knew they were sending those,” insists Haji.

The report also shows that the majority of Congressional offices don’t respond to constituent email with email; in fact just 17 percent of House offices and 38 percent of Senate offices use email for this purpose. As it turns out, most survey respondents who don’t use email to respond worry that their messages could be altered and forwarded, thus misrepresenting their bosses' positions. But rather than buying into what he calls an “unsubstantiated fear” that emails will be manipulated for nefarious purposes, CMF’s Fitch thinks congressional members should view email responses as potential viral marketing campaign messages.

So, if they don’t respond with email, how do they respond? According to the study, offices that don’t use email “print the e-mail message, process and file it manually and respond with a postal letter.” One reason: Congress doesn’t need stamps. Their mail service, covered by the "franking privilege" costs them nothing.

Although software products such as Lockheed Martin’s Intranet Quorum provide means of routing emails to appropriate staff members and automating responses to constituents, such findings indicate that Congressional offices have a ways to go when it comes to integrating today’s technology. Capitol Advantage’s Gordon argues that Hill staffers “need to embrace more technology to solve some of these problems,” noting that adding staff isn’t necessarily the best way to handle the recent changes in constituent relations.

To formulate the "Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy" report, CMF conducted focus groups with House and Senate staff in January of last year, followed by four online surveys conducted between August 2004 and May 2005 of Congressional chiefs of staff and their correspondence staff, Senate senior managers and Senate office managers. In all, the report is based on more than 300 survey responses.

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