summary of implications for congressional offices
- there is a new communications environment to which congress will need to adapt.
- congress must improve online communications.
- managing in the new environment may require new capabilities and new thinking.
- the new environment provides benefits that members of congress and their staffs have not yet fully appreciated.
Because the Internet has emerged rapidly, Congress has not had time to adapt to its effects. Many in Congress view technology as merely providing new tools to accomplish the same tasks they have always performed. However, the Internet has gone far beyond simply providing new tools to perform old tasks. It has altered the public’s access to information, expanded coalition-building opportunities, and created new communications habits across the entire electorate. In order to adapt to the new environment that the Internet has created, Congress must adopt an entirely new communications paradigm.
In this new communications paradigm, interactions between Members and constituents can occur through many channels at once, each playing off, and building on, the others. Some constituents get their information via e-mail, others via Web sites, others still via a combination of media. Constituents now expect on-demand access to information, services available 24-7, and rapid responses to communications. Now, constituents have the capability to be better informed than Members and staff regarding pending legislation. Now, it is not always the Member informing and updating the constituent, but the constituent informing and updating the Member.
To manage in this new communications paradigm, congressional offices will need to adapt their thinking and practices. This presents a challenge to traditional ways of communicating, but it also offers significant benefits, which will be discussed later in this section.
Increasing numbers of citizens are becoming involved in politics and government through the Internet. Members of Congress must be able to interact with citizens, in the form that citizens prefer. Congressional offices must do all they can to manage the expectations of constituents and grassroots organizations and to promote better communications practices. To begin to do this, Members and staff can:
- Communicate their response policies. To help manage constituent expectations, some Members of Congress post their response policies on their Web sites or include them in automatically-generated acknowledgements of incoming e-mail messages.
- Reach out to grassroots organizations. Congressional offices can adapt to the new environment by proactively collaborating with the grassroots community to identify better ways for Members of Congress and their constituents to communicate with one another.
- Respond to e-mail with e-mail. If a citizen sends a message to his or her Congressman via e-mail, the citizen is usually expecting an e-mail reply. Responding to e-mail with e-mail can also save offices money and staff time.
Congressional offices are acknowledging that there will soon come a time when no further progress can be made using existing technologies and operational procedures. If nothing changes, either responsiveness will decline or resources will have to be taken from legislative or constituent service work. For this reason, Congress and congressional offices may need to consider some of the following:
- Provide Members with additional staff and resources. Congress may need to consider providing Member personal offices with additional resources. In spite of the political challenges associated with increasing congressional budgets, this investment of staff and resources would be devoted to Members’ fundamental responsibility of representing their constituents.
- Expand the use of technology. Congress may need to identify and adopt additional technologies and communications vehicles to interact with constituents. Such technologies might include: interactive Web sites with rich content; e-newsletters targeted to the specific interests of segmented audiences; Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to provide citizens with information on-demand; and other emerging tools such as Web logs and podcasts. Diversifying the communications tools available to the public and Congress could potentially increase both the quality of communications and the number of people who can interact with Members of Congress.
- Adopt new management policies. This is an approach that many Member offices are already implementing. For example, some offices have policies to anticipate and manage surges in constituent communications associated with particularly contentious issues. Other offices have developed policies to prioritize responses to grassroots campaigns. Still others have policies to review mail reports at weekly staff meetings to keep staff motivated and informed.
- Establish a task force to identify solutions. Identifying solutions for managing in the new environment may require some of the key stakeholders – Member office staff, institutional staff, vendors, representatives from the grassroots industry, and representatives from the public – to come together to brainstorm and agree on new approaches. CMF hopes to facilitate such a forum as part of this Communicating with Congress project.
4. the new environment provides benefits that members of congress and their staffs have not yet fully appreciated.
Most congressional offices recognize that there are benefits to responding to the communications they receive, but few have recognized that, in the new communications environment, there are also benefits to expanding and encouragingconstituent communications. Currently, most staff view constituent communications primarily as a necessary administrative burden that pulls their time and attention away from their legislative work. Senior managers usually recognize the importance of being responsive, but few have embraced the inherent opportunities associated with communicating with more constituents more often through new communications tools.
In the new communications paradigm, communications are faster, less expensive, and can reach more people. Members of Congress could realize significant benefits by utilizing new tools and devoting more resources to interacting with constituents. These benefits include:
- Connecting to thousands of constituents. Due to e-mail, the Internet, databases and other technologies, today’s Members of Congress have an opportunity to easily and affordably interact with far more constituents than their predecessors ever did. Interacting with more constituents could help improve constituents’ understanding of the Member’s views and activities and generate broader support for the Member.
- Connecting to Influentials in the district or state. As discussed in the full report [link to PDF - 776 KB], people who send political e-mails or who write or call a public official are significantly more likely than the general public to be influential people in their communities – the very people with whom Members of Congress should most be cultivating their relationships.
- Realizing cost savings. Congress, as a whole, will likely need to invest more resources in constituent communications in order to respond to constituent demand. However, individual offices can realize costs savings by using online communications tools instead of off-line tools.
- Improving the Member’s image in the district or state. By communicating with constituents using faster and more accommodating methods, Members can enhance their images among their constituents.
- Learning to operate in the Information Age. The rules, standards, and customs for communicating on the Internet are different from those for communicating through other media. Congressional offices must learn those new rules in order to operate effectively in the Information Age.
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
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.