An Open Letter to Members of Congress: It’s Time for Constituent Communication to Change

In a few days, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress will be having a hearing to discuss constituent communication on the Hill. I will not be attending, but if I was invited to testify at the hearing, this what I would say:

For the past few years, I have dedicated my Ph.D. research towards understanding how Members of Congress use technology for constituent communication and what it means for representative democracy and technology for civic engagement.

If there’s one thing I want Members to take away from these discussions, it’s that they have more power to change how their office communicates with citizens than they think – and change is desperately needed.

As a student of computer science, I will be the first to say that technology is not the answer. It can be part of the solution, but it is not the answer.

Many tech experts agree that information technology only amplifies pre-existing practices of institutions at greater scales – and we see this in Congress. Congress has always had practices to listen, record, and respond to constituents. But the scale of communication grew past the capacities of offices, and technology came along and offered a way to manage the increase in phone calls, faxes, emails, and letters.

However, this technology has also put large burdens on offices.  The job of correspondence staff has transformed from the gatekeepers of citizen’s voices to glorified database administrators. They spend hours, and sometimes entire days just batching and organization communication in the constituent databases.

But for what purposes? To develop form responses? Offices who track the open rate of these emails find engagement substantially low – and there is some evidence that highly motivated citizens are often just as dissatisfied with form responses compared to not getting a response at all. Why do Members still dedicate so much time developing form responses when they are barely opened?

Social media has its own major problems. Being a good communications staffer now requires being an expert at social media influence and online moderation. But major social media players like Facebook and Twitter were never designed to be spaces for quality policymaker engagement. Just ask Congressmen Rick Crawford who replaced Facebook with his new texting application. Or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who points out that, these platforms are huge public health risk. In addition, why is Congress communicating to constituents through platforms that sell citizen’s data? Why should citizens need to give up their privacy just to feel connected to those they elect? There is clearly bi-partisan concern for Congress using these platforms.

These communication strategies also take up tremendous staff resources. Many (offices) have reallocated staff resources away from other tasks like casework and legislative activities to manage the growing volumes of communication. In 2005, the Congressional Management Foundation reported that offices allocate up to 50% of their staff to constituent correspondence. But the number of staff in each office has only increased by 4% since 1982 (Strauss & Glassman, 2016). In the 113th Congress (2013-2014), 16% of Senators had staff members with “social media” or “new media” in their job titles (Strauss & Glassman, 2016). That is a huge amount of labor.

And yet, there is a substantial amount of empirical evidence that shows social media communication is primarily used for self-promotion. Often, this is for logical reasons. Most staff I have interviewed don’t trust incoming communication from constituents, describing this contact as often underinformed, highly emotional, untimely, redundant scripts, and not very helpful for policy decision-making.

These platforms do not provide meaningful two-way communication with constituents. But staff are feeling increase pressures to respond on social media, even though on most platforms you can’t actually tell who is a constituent or not.

On the surface, these are all technology issues. But look a little deeper and you’ll find that these are issues with the institution and how Congress has historically defined constituent communication and citizen inclusion.

That is why my ask of Congress is this…

Think long and hard about what you want constituent communication to be, and what it shouldn’t be.

Re-consider what is traditionally expected of offices and staff – and think about opportunities for more meaningful, rather than superficial engagement. I’m optimistic that change is going to come, but only if Congress takes the first step towards breaking the norms of the institutional and finding better methods that are more meaningful to each office. 

Thank you.

[1] Straus, J. R., & Glassman, M. E. (2016). Social media in Congress: The impact of electronic media on member communications. Congressional Research Service.

[2] Fitch, B., Goldschmidt, K., Fulton, E., & Griffin, N. (2005). Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is coping with the surge in citizen advocacy. Washington, DC: Congressional Management Foundation.