summary of key findings
Findings and Analysis
Our findings are based on two surveys of adult Americans – one online and one by telephone – commissioned by the Congressional Management Foundation in fall 2007.
- Almost half of Americans (44%) contacted a U.S. Senator or Representative in the past five years. This is a much higher contact rate than the most authoritative study found in 2004, which could have significant implications to Congress.
- Americans who contacted Congress tended to be more politically active in other ways than those who did not. They were more than twice as likely to have volunteered for or given money to a political campaign and to have joined or renewed membership in an advocacy group, professional association, or club. They were also four times as likely to have volunteered for or given money to an advocacy campaign.
- The Internet has become the primary source for learning about and communicating with Congress.Our research found that 92% of Internet users who had contacted Congress had visited a Member’s Web site. Additionally, a plurality (43%) of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.
- Internet users who contacted Congress were motivated to do so because they cared deeply about an issue (91%). Even a majority (88%) of those who contacted Congress as a result of a third party request indicated this was part of their reason for doing so.
- Interest groups played an important role in how Internet users learned about and communicated with Congress. Our research found that 84% who had contacted Congress, and 44% who had not, had been asked to do so by a third party – with interest groups being the dominant source of the most recent of these requests. Additionally, Internet users, whether they had contacted Congress or not, generally found information from interest groups to be more credible than information from Congress.
- Internet users wanted responses to their communications with Congress, but they tended not to be satisfied with the responses they received. Our research found that 91% who had contacted Congress, and 82% who had not, would want a response. However, only two-thirds who contacted recall receiving a reply to their most recent communication, and of those who did, almost half (46%) were dissatisfied with it. The most common reasons for dissatisfaction were that the response did not address their concerns (64%) and that it was too politically biased (51%).
- Internet users generally felt disconnected from Congress, but wanted to feel engaged. Only 39% who had contacted Congress, and 36% who had not, found information from Senators and Representatives to be trustworthy. Of those who had not contacted Congress, 55% said one reason was that they did not think Members of Congress care what they have to say. Furthermore, 62% who had contacted Congress felt their Members were not interested in what they have to say. However, most Internet users want their Senators and Representatives to keep them informed of their views and activities and of the policy issues being debated in Washington.
- Even with a high level of disaffection toward Congress, Internet users placed a high value on the role of advocacy campaigns in our democracy. Despite a lack of trust in information from Members of Congress and the sense that Members do not care what they have to say, Internet users felt strongly that advocacy campaigns are good for democracy. Fully 73% of those who had contacted Congress agreed – and 34% strongly agreed – that advocacy campaigns are good for democracy. Even 49% who had not contacted Congress agreed with this sentiment.
- There is an untapped opportunity to communicate more with engaged, politically active, and motivated constituents. Although there is fence-mending to do, Members of Congress have excellent opportunities to build relationships with some of their most engaged constituents if they choose to do so. By communicating with those who contact them and by communicating with them more often, they can keep constituents informed while enhancing their image.
- Congress needs to improve online communications. With three-quarters of American adults now using the Internet,  it is not surprising that the Internet is the preferred method of learning about and communicating with Congress. Unfortunately, many congressional offices have yet to adapt to online tools and techniques. A significant number still respond to e-mail with postal mail, 42% have substandard or failing Web sites,  and few have embraced new media tools for better serving online constituents.
- Congressional offices need to rethink their constituent communications strategies. Although most congressional offices think very carefully about their communications, there appears to be a disconnect between their idea of what constituents want and what constituents actually want. Offices need to consider how to effectively: transition from old media to new media, let constituents know they are being heard, manage constituents’ expectations for action, and respond to constituent communications.
- Congressional offices should reconsider how they handle grassroots advocacy campaigns. Although most congressional offices do not dispute the role grassroots advocacy campaigns play in the public policy process, some dispute the value of that role. Many doubt advocacy campaigns of identical form messages are “real,” and this mistrust has led some offices to block or ignore certain communications. Given the importance citizens appear to place on the organizations they trust, however, offices using these tactics may not only miss opportunities, they may damage relationships with some constituents.
- Congress needs additional resources to effectively manage its 21st Century workload. Whether through budgetary increases, added staff, improved technologies, shared services, assistance in improving systems and processes, or – more likely – a combination of these, congressional offices will need additional resources to effectively manage constituent communications, citizen participation, and the legislative demands of the Internet Age.
- The organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns can help facilitate more positive communications between Members and citizens. Few survey respondents said the reason they contacted Congress at the request of a third party was to thank a Member. They were far more likely to say the information in the request worried them or made them angry. Rather than perpetuating an “us” versus “them” mentality, the organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns should identify opportunities for positive communications and relationship-building both to accomplish their goals and to help strengthen democracy.
- The organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns have a greater role in – and responsibility for – democratic dialogue than merely winning legislative battles. The organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns, and the groups and causes for whom they work, play the role of trusted educators and facilitators of communications between citizens and Members of Congress. They are part of something bigger than a one-time advocacy campaign, and they should understand and respect their role in the democratic dialogue.
¹Pew Internet and American Life Project, October 24 – December 2, 2007 Tracking Survey. http://www.pewinternet.org/trends/User Demo 2.15.08.htm
²2007 Gold Mouse Report: Lessons from the Best Web Sites on Capitol Hill. Collin Burden et al., Congressional Management Foundation, 2007. http://www.cmfweb.org/index. php?option=com content&view=article&id=235
CwC: How the Internet Has Changed Citizen Engagement
Read the full report: CWC_CitizenEngagement(2.6Mb)
Copyright 2008, Congressional Management Foundation
About the Communicating with Congress Project
- Project Overview - In 2001, CMF began work on this project to improve communications between citizens and Members of Congress.
- How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy - A report on congressional staffs' views of constituent communications based on focus groups, interviews, and surveys of 350 House and Senate Staff in 200 offices.
- Conference on Constituent Communications: Dispelling Myths and Discussing Solutions - A forum in which more than 200 experts and stakeholders from both sides came together to share perspectives and discuss possible solutions.
- How the Internet Has Changed Citizen Engagement - A report on citizens' views on communicating with Congress based on nationwide telephone and online surveys of citizens.
- Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue - This report is the culmination of CMF's nine years of research, outreach, and study, with recommendations for all stakeholders on how to improve communication between citizens and Congress.
- Navigating the Rising Tide of Grassroots Advocacy - CMF offers educational presentations for grassroots/advocacy organizations on the topic of how to effectively communicate with Congress.