I Visited 100 Offices in Congress. This Is What I Observed

Over the past three weeks, I visited 100 offices in the House of Representatives to recruit legislative correspondents to take a survey. Not all offices participated, but I still stepped into every office and chatted with every person at the front desk. Below are all the things big and small that I learned and observed.

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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

Social Media and Campaign 2012: Developments and Trends for Facebook Adoption – An Personal Lit Review

I’ve read a few papers by Girish J Gulati and Christine B Williams at Bentley University. Their work on social media adoption and Congress is super helpful to my work and I’m seeing some interesting themes with Congress and trends within technology through their work.

In this paper, Gulati and Williams look into the adoption of Facebook as a political platform in Congressional campaigns, with a diffusion of innovation lens. They find that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats in their adoption. However there are certain trends in reasons for adoption that change each year.

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AGS Symposium Talk

In late spring I gave a practice talk at the Associated Graduate Students Symposium (click picture to see video). The talk described the beginnings of my research into constituent communication in Congress.

Screenshot of my talk at the AGS Symposium

I decided to give this talk to practice my speaking skills and to articulate my research goals. More than six months later, AGS finally sent my a copy of my talk to review.

I have to say, I think I did better than I expected. It’s always really awkward seeing yourself on video but when I focused on the content, it wasn’t bad. I think my thoughts flowed well and I got my ideas across. I thought my slides were clean and easy to understand.

I definitely need to slow down and stop moving my hands so much 🙂 I tend to be a fast talker and I get really nervous when I talk which makes me speed up even more. I need to be more cognizant of my pace and breathe more, which will hopefully make everything else slow down as well.

There were also a few talking points that are now outdated. I should have been more clear that not all Congressional offices are using 50% of their staff for constituent communication, but some of them were according to CMF statistics (I’m pretty sure I remember is being CMF statistics. I have to double check).  I am also not conducting a qualitative study of users of automated letter writing tools, at least not yet. But now looking back, that still seems like an interesting idea.

Tech Threats to Democracy

The New York Times just posted a chilling article titled “Silicon Valley Can’t Destroy Democracy Without Our Help”. In the very first line, Emily Parker says

“Silicon Valley, once a force for good, is now a threat to democracy”.

I haven’t read the entire article yet, but it probed my brain to ask if this is true. Is technology a threat to our democracy, or are certain technologies extenuating and inflating circumstances that are already occurring, and are now at the forefront of discussion?

I think many of us can agree that this past year has led the public to question the power of large technology companies like Facebook and Google. It has also lead those companies to question their own authority and responsibilities to the public. Take Mark Zuckerburg, who is now taking the Russian investigations more seriously than ever. I’m delighted to see the public take a critical stance on these companies. They need to be critically analyzed and controlled. But to blame them for our problems as a country do not help fix the underlying issues.

Here’s a good question. Would Trump’s large advertisements exist if we had controlled budgets for elections? Would political advertising be effective if citizens were provided with higher quality sources of information? Rather than be quick to blame the messenger, think about the quality of the message and how we have educated the public to receive that message.

Without question, technology companies’ influences have tremendously shaped our lives for good and for worse. But they aren’t the only ones to blame for the problems we have needed to address for decades.

(Click picture for NYT link)

Update: The article does affirm my beliefs.


Last night I was driving in my car and was signing along to the Hamilton soundtrack. I realized while I was singing that I discovered the Hamilton soundtrack at the end of my junior year of undergraduate, right as I started thinking about graduate school. And as I thought about the timeline in my car, I realized that the musical probably played a role in my decision to look at Congress. It reinstalled a sense of pride and faith into what the U.S. has built, and an empathy for those in charge today.

So thank you Hamilton. You may have lead to me to where I am today.