Report Documents How Congressional Offices Are Adapting to Manage Demand
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressional offices are receiving between 200 to 1,000 percent more constituent communications than they were ten years ago. Despite the increase, a survey of congressional staff indicates that 90 percent believe constituent communications remains a "high priority" for the office. But sizable percentages of staff report that their offices are shifting resources to manage the increased demand.
The findings are part of a new report released today by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), How Citizen Advocacy Is Changing Mail Operations on Capitol Hill. The report is based on a survey of 260 congressional staff on how email and the Internet are affecting office procedures. CMF researchers also collected mail volume data from ten House and Senate offices.
"Congress is working hard to adapt to and understand this new environment," the report states. "But are most Members and staff of the Congress fundamentally rethinking what they do, or simply trying to apply a 20th century paradigm, workflow, and communications process to a 21st century challenge?"
Among the findings:
- Senate offices reported a 548 percent increase in mail volume since 2002 (including one office that reported a 1,422 percent increase from 2002 to 2009); House offices reported a 158 percent increase. All offices reported a significant spike in volume in 2009 when Congress considered many high-profile issues.
- An increasing number of congressional offices are answering incoming email with an email response, rising from 37 percent in 2005 to 86 percent in 2010.
- A majority of staff report they spend more time on constituent communications than two years ago (58 percent); and 46 percent report shifting resources to manage increased volume.
- If an office has previously prepared a response to a constituent inquiry, a sizable percentage of staff (41 percent) estimate it requires more than a week to respond. If a new policy statement or text is required, 42 percent report it can take more than three weeks for the office to respond.
- While senior managers and staff primarily responsible for answering the mail agree on the top three challenges to quickly responding to constituent communications, they do not agree on the most significant problem. Senior managers state that the mail volume is the biggest challenge (35 percent); but, "mail staffers" report that "the review and approval process" is the biggest obstacle (41 percent).
The report notes that congressional offices have seen no increases in personnel in the last three decades. "I don't know any industry in the world that could absorb as much as a ten-fold increase in customer interest and a zero increase in labor to support it," said Bradford Fitch, President and CEO of CMF. "Under the circumstances, most congressional offices are doing the best job they can in just keeping up with the increasing volume," he said.
The report is the latest in a series of CMF's "Communicating with Congress" research, part of the organization's Partnership for a More Perfect Union, which seeks to enhance the understanding, communications, and relationship between citizens and Congress. The report is the third in a series released in 2011 by CMF based primarily on a survey of congressional staff conducted October–December 2010. Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill was released in January 2011, and #SocialCongress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill was released in July 2011. Today's report and other CMF research are available at CongressFoundation.org.
The report was sponsored by Convio, Fireside21 and voterVOICE. CMF's next report will be released on October 24, identifying the best websites on Capitol Hill, with the issuance of the 112th Congress Gold Mouse Awards.
Founded in 1977, CMF is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to helping Congress and its Members meet the evolving needs and expectations of an engaged and informed 21st century citizenry. Its work focuses on improving congressional operations and enhancing citizen engagement through research, publications, training and management services.