The Internet has forever changed how citizens and Members of Congress interact. Much of the change has been positive: more people than ever before are engaging in the public policy process; citizens are availing themselves of powerful new opportunities to organize around, and advocate for, issues that matter to them; and Members of Congress are informing and interacting with constituents in ways never before possible. However, the unprecedented capabilities of the Internet have also brought unprecedented challenges. Over the past decade, both congressional offices and the organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns have employed technology in ways that have unintentionally hindered the democratic dialogue. The result has been misunderstanding, frustration, wasted effort, and even anger on both sides, which must be resolved to truly realize the tremendous opportunities for electronic communications between citizens and their representatives in Congress.
The Communicating with Congress project has been a nearly decade-long endeavor by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) to help improve the democratic dialogue. To identify the critical challenges with, and possible solutions for, communications between citizens and Congress, CMF engaged congressional staff, citizens, public affairs professionals, technologists, and thought leaders through surveys, focus groups, workshops, research, and a public conference. The vast and varied information we collected is the basis for this report, which offers recommendations for ways each stakeholder group can help improve the process and puts forward a concept for a new model for constituent communications.
A prerequisite to understanding the challenges is to understand who the players are, their roles in the communications between Congress and the public, and the processes they use to perform their roles. While it is important to note that these communications are fundamentally personal interactions between one citizen and one Member of Congress, the reality is that other players participate, as well. In addition to citizens and Members of Congress – the primary stakeholders – there are secondary and tertiary stakeholder groups involved. All play vital roles in ensuring that effective communication takes place.
Citizens are the primary stakeholders on the sender side, and their right to petition government for a redress of grievances is enshrined in the Constitution. The primary stakeholders on the receiving end are Members of Congress. Congressional staff members are secondary stakeholders, as they are responsible for helping Senators and Representatives manage their communication to and from their constituents. The many thousands of organizations that facilitate grassroots advocacy campaigns – including interest groups, professional associations, employers, unions, clubs, etc. – are also secondary stakeholders. Citizens look to the organizations they trust to help them monitor what is happening in Washington and to help them understand when and how to become engaged in the political process. Like congressional staff, these organizations play an important role in the communications between citizens and Members of Congress. The tertiary stakeholders are the vendors on both sides that provide technology, tools, and services to help the secondary stakeholders do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
The processes each stakeholder group uses to perform their roles are complicated by challenges such as security issues, high volumes of communications, a lack of data standards, and stagnant congressional staff sizes. Unfortunately, rather than collaborating to overcome the challenges and develop a better system of communication, both sides have spent significant time and effort trying to thwart the efforts of the other side to accomplish their own immediate objectives. What has developed is basically an arms race rather than a cooperative effort to accomplish their common overarching goal: effective communication between Members of Congress and their constituents.
Good practices and bad practices are employed by both sides. Some organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns have opted for expediency in sending communications to Congress, rather than employing tactics that are both effective and efficient and show respect for the traditional dialogue between the electorate and the elected. Some congressional offices, on the other hand, have chosen to reject any communication that does not originate through their own Web form, not understanding the role that grassroots organizations play and the faith that their constituents put in the organizations they trust. It is essential to understand, however, that the vast majority of citizens, grassroots organizations, and congressional offices do want effective and efficient communications. Those who engage in bad practices are the minority on both sides.
The purpose of this report is to give best-practice recommendations to every stakeholder group to provide a benchmark for future effectiveness.
Even if all of the players were engaging in best practices, however, the current systems employed by each group have been developed independently of one another, which provides for a great deal of confusion, wasted efforts, and vast inefficiency. What is clear to almost anyone involved in congressional communications is that the current system of communication is inadequate and does not accomplish the goals of either side. The new model for constituent communication that CMF puts forward in this report has at its base a set of beliefs – all communications to and from congressional offices should be trustworthy, authentic, effective and efficient. From that starting point we have developed – in collaboration with representatives from all of the various stakeholder groups – a new way of handling communications that will address some of the most complicated issues that keep the process mired in inefficiency. This new model for constituent communications, called the “Aggregated Communications Dashboard,” allows for improved communication by:
- Aggregating grassroots communications. The primary purpose and power of grassroots communication is to demonstrate strength in the collective voice of engaged and organized citizens. However, if this strength is diluted upon delivery because the messages cannot be viewed together, some of the power is lost. As a result, a new model needs to be able to pull all of the communications about a particular topic or advocacy campaign together. It is in this aggregation that advocacy campaigns can maximize their impact and congressional offices can accurately understand the sentiments of their constituents.
- Verifying that grassroots communications are sent from real citizens. Grassroots communications should never be sent to the offices of elected officials without the knowledge, consent, and action of the individual citizen. Any successful model must convey to congressional offices that they can trust the communications are sent through the direct action of a constituent. Though there are few ways to guarantee constituent involvement, there are ways to provide strong evidence that citizens are actively sending messages through the inclusion of personalized comments.
- Identifying the sponsoring grassroots organization and their vendor. Congressional staff report that being able to identify – and being able to contact – both the grassroots organization and advocacy vendor it might be using would add weight and credibility to grassroots campaigns. Though it may seem counterintuitive, identifying the organization generating a campaign – which CMF recommends but considers optional – helps improve congressional staff trust, as it demonstrates that the organization stands behind the messages. Staff can also follow up on the campaign or resolve technical problems if contact information for the organization and vendor are included.
- Identifying the bill, amendment, or topic of the messages. Early identification of the topic in a constituent’s message will allow congressional offices to more quickly process and reply to constituent correspondence. Ideally, the overall subject, bill, or amendment should be clearly identified to immediately allow the receiving office to know the topic and sentiments of the citizen’s communication.
- Developing a set of open source communications standards. Any new model for constituent
communications must be based on open source standards that are published and available for those who
wish to communicate with Congress. These standards must be widely available, both to accommodate
the largest number of organizations and to allow even small grassroots groups to participate without the
assistance of a third-party vendor.
It is not enough to make recommendations and put forward new models for improved communications. Neither
will actually affect change unless the stakeholders act on those recommendations and together take steps to
collaborate on solutions.
For that reason, CMF believes that great strides could be made by continuing the dialogue and momentum of
the Communicating with Congress project by convening a task force to help evaluate and implement possible
solutions. Of course, any effective task force would need to be comprised of representative decision makers
from each of the various stakeholder groups. Through this collaboration, and with this report as a starting point,
we believe that the administrative burden of managing communications can be minimized while allowing a more
meaningful interaction – an improvement in the democratic dialogue – between Members and their constituents.
CwC: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue
Read the full report: CWC_RecommendationsReport (3.5 MB)
Copyright 2008 by the 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.