The Problem With Constituent Correspondence. Is Technology to Blame?

Citizen contact to Member offices has consistently predicted Member’s legislative behavior and perception of the district [1]. However, recent systemic research finds very little evidence that office contact from constituents is meaningfully conveyed to policymakers [2]. This is an insightful and important finding to anyone interested in how constituents can influence Members.

However, the research frames this clear lack of effort to collect and use constituent correspondence as a failure of the office. I would like to offer an alternative view. Rather than a failure, I believe this outcome is a rational reaction to a wave of contact that is difficult to meaningfully utilize for responsive purposes. Even more concerning, I find that the technology used to manage contact propagates these correspondence methods. The technology allows offices to continue managing contact at larger scales and efficiency without offering better alternatives for constituent input into the policymaking process.

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The Value of Observation

I have returned to Washington D.C. for the summer to continue my research on constituent communication technology in Congress. Since I’ve returned to listen to the stories of interns, LAs, Members, and other previous staffers, I’ve begun to value more qualitative methods in my research.

During my comprehensive exam, I read numerous papers describing quantitative studies that try to track who, what, where, when, why and how representatives value constituent input into the policymaking process. What has been bugging me lately is the rhetoric around choice within this system. All too often I see too many assumptions about Representatives having a choice in how to vote, how to communicate with constituents, how to organize their office, and how to include citizens in the policymaking process. And often these constraints are based on quantitative methods and understandings of how Congress works.

But these ‘choices’ are constrained by the organization, the culture, and the technology of Congress (see Jane Fountain’s work). The quantitative research I have seen uses rhetoric that positions Members as in control of what they and their office do, but this is incorrect.

And ethnographic work is necessary to identify the contextual nuances of every office, every staffer, and every Member to understand how their practices are influenced by others in the institution (see arguments by Weeden, 2010).

I am not claiming that Members have no control over how they perform constituent communication. But I am saying that there are so many influences from Congress that limit those choices. And understanding those limitations are critical if we really want to understand why certain processes and decisions are made to manage constituent communication.



Passed my Comprehensive Exam

I recently passed my comprehensive exams (woohoo!). In my department, the exam consists of writing a substantial literature review, which usually has 50-150 pieces of literature, and an in-person presentation and discussion of the literature with a committee of three persons. On my committee, I had Bonnie Nardi, Melissa Mazmanian, and Matt Beckmann. I enjoyed having an anthropologist, an orgs theorist, and a political scientist all in one room. They provided very different but very insightful perspectives on my review and the future of my research.

My literature review was a combination of works in political science, sociology, information and computer science, and HCI. It was hard to situate my research into just one field, and I did my best to try to scope my review of literature in each field that pertained to my work.

I’ve attached my literature review for anyone that is interested in reading it: McDonald_Comps.pdf