The conclusions that can be drawn from our research may seem disheartening at first. Congressional staff are frustrated by the increasing quantity and decreasing quality of constituent communications, and they are inclined to mistrust grassroots communications and the organizations that generate them. They feel they are doing more work to respond to less substantive messages, which is giving them less time to work on the legislative work that brought most of them to Capitol Hill in the first place.
However, despite these frustrations, congressional staff believe that the Internet and e-mail have provided some clear public benefits that are encouraging for our democracy. They view constituents as more informed, Members as more responsive, and citizens as more engaged in the public policy process as a result of Internet and e-mail. The Internet and e-mail have also provided grassroots organizations and citizens with new and exciting opportunities to organize around issues, access and share information, and communicate with their elected officials. Clearly, they are taking advantage of these tools.
It is encouraging for the future of democracy that citizens find it easier to become informed of and engaged in public policy and to communicate with Congress. It is also encouraging that Members of Congress and their staff want to hear from their constituents and are trying to be responsive to them. However, both sides need to figure out how to facilitate this dialogue in more productive and meaningful ways.
Citizens and Congress have a shared interest in improving communications between them. Both sides want and benefit from a robust and meaningful discourse. Members and their staff would like to see communications occur in ways that are both valuable and manageable to their offices. Citizens and the grassroots community want to know that they are succeeding in making their voices heard and influencing the legislative process. Consequently, it is in the interest of both parties to consider making changes that better serve these shared interests.
Through this Communicating with Congress project, CMF intends to help facilitate these changes. This report represents the first step in that effort. To help the Congress better understand the other side of the communications equation, CMF’s next report will turn to research that will identify the perceptions that citizens and the grassroots community have regarding their communications to Congress. We then hope to use the data from this report and our next report to identify best practices for constituent communications on Capitol Hill. Finally, we hope to facilitate discussion and problem-solving among congressional staff, citizens, and the grassroots community by convening a task force with representatives from both sides of congressional communications. It is our hope that, at the conclusion of CMF’s Communicating with Congress project, there will be a new model for communications between constituents and their elected officials. A model that reduces or removes the current frustrations and barriers, facilitates increased citizen participation in the public policy process, and increases a meaningful democratic dialogue that benefits our country.
CwC: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy
Read the full report: CWC_CapitolHillCoping (754 KB)
- Summary of Key Findings
- Selected Charts
- Summary of Implications for Citizens and Grassroots Organizations
- Summary of Implications for Congress
Copyright 2005 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.