• A new report from concludes that mass email campaigns to Congress have little effect on policymaking.
  • It found Congressional staff use policy-related constituent correspondence more as a tool for monitoring constituent views — not an avenue for engagement.
  • The report’s author blames technology for creating a systemic problem of automatic communication, but also looks to technology to help fix the system to better facilitate constituent engagement.

As technology has evolved and the US population has grown, Congress has drifted further than ever from the old ideal of lawmakers personally corresponding with the people of their district and shaping policies based on their feedback. In the era of mass communication, in which a form letter asking a Member of Congress to vote a certain way on a certain issue can be sent with a single click, it’s simply not feasible for lawmakers or even their staff to keep up.

What does this mean for citizens and grassroots leaders hoping to catch the ear of their representative? To help understand the present flow of constituent communications on Capitol Hill and how it impacts lawmakers, Samantha McDonald, University of California at Irvine Ph.D. student and former research assistant for the Congressional Management Foundation, published a new report Wednesday based on a survey of Legislative Correspondents.

Congress has a constituent correspondence problem

McDonald is a technologist by training and currently specializing in informatics. After a survey of staff from 26 congressional offices, she concludes that Congress has a problem with constituent correspondence.

Even though citizens and advocacy campaigns are stepping up their use of digital platforms to voice their policy opinions, McDonald found little evidence that congressional offices have any sort of system or procedure for considering opinions expressed through citizen correspondence in policy decision-making. On the contrary, even though citizens have more opportunities and channels through which to communicate with Members, their correspondence appears to have little effect on how their representatives vote or what policies they bring to the floor.

The report takes pains to unpack why constituent correspondence seems to have so little effect. Its key findings include the following:

  • The current process for constituent correspondence does not promote policymaking that reflects constituent opinions. The information staff tend to capture from correspondence logs minimal information about constituent opinion.
  • Staffers report that advocacy-related constituent communication has minimal policy value. With the advent of automatic and low-effort forms of advocacy technology, correspondence staff say constituent opinions are often poorly informed.
  • Constituent database technology is not designed to facilitate responsive forms of engagement. The databases used for constituent correspondence are slow, difficult to learn, and confusing; moreover, their design limits the quality of information that can be captured.
  • From the perspective of Members’ offices, the primary uses of policy-related constituent correspondence are to formulate outgoing communication and to monitor constituent sentiment. They feel an obligation to respond to constituent inquiries, often to educate them about an issue or a piece of legislation, but little more.

Perceptions and reality

In the conclusion, the paper offers a reality check for zealous citizens and grassroots activists.

“Citizens, advocacy organizations, and Members often portray correspondence through email, phone calls, and letters as an effective tool to engage with policymakers and influence policy,” MacDonald writes, adding a blunt verdict: “There is clear evidence that this is not the case.”

Instead, she says, the only thing Members are doing is continuing a churn of weak, impersonal correspondence with greater efficiency and scale. Their staff have little incentive to value constituent engagement, and staff often view correspondence as under- or misinformed, untimely, or unrelated to the Member’s imminent policy concerns.

MacDonald blames technology for creating this systemic problem of automatic communication channels, but she also looks to technology to help fix the system.

“Technology can be part of the solution, but only if that technology invites new ways of thinking about how to engage citizens,” MacDonald writes. “What is missing is substantial explorations of how technology might engender communication practices that are actually responsive to constituent concerns.”

For starters, she recommends that constituent correspondence, given its current state, should be recognized for what it is: a tool for monitoring constituent views — not an avenue for engagement. This form of communication, de-valued through the ease of mass communication, needs to be reduced to a manageable level before it can take on any meaningful value as a way to engage one’s representative.

In the meantime, citizens and activists seeking to make their voice heard in Congress would do well to change their assumptions and take a clear-eyed view of how correspondence staff respond to mass email campaigns.

Note: This survey focused only on junior level staff that work with constituent correspondence, so these findings cannot be applied to senior staff who are more likely to be policy advisors to Members of Congress. The full report is available online here.

Image Credit: “School Group — U.S. House of Representatives Washington (DC) June 2013” by Ron Cogswell is licensed under CC BY 2.0