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.

Historically, citizen contact to Members of Congress has consistently predicted the legislator’s behavior and perceptions of the district [1] [3]. However, it has never been clear how that contact informed the Member. Members and their staff claim letters, emails, faxes, and phone calls shape their behavior on the Hill [1], but is this true?

Claire Abernathy’s dissertation offered the first large-scale systemic analysis of the constituent correspondence practices in the House [7]. Her research showed that there is a huge disconnect between what citizens and academics think is happening when constituents contact the Member’s office, and what actually happens. There is little evidence that suggests Members and their staff meaningfully view incoming contact from constituents through these correspondence practices.

I am very excited about Abernathy’s findings. However, I would like to offer an alternative point of view on how to frame these findings. Here are some quotes from the research:

“Correspondence practices limit the utility of constituent contacts as an information resource in many offices…Without recording every contact, offices are failing to capture information about constituent opinion”  – Abernathy, Leg Branch Blog

“…in choosing to omit certain types of contacts from their records or limit the information shared through mail reports, many congressional offices fail to capitalize on the valuable information that constituent correspondence can provide. As a result, these offices may not be able to discern and respond to constituent views.” – Abernathy, Dissertation 

Rather than framing this situation as a failure of offices, could it be something else? If offices were to diligently record contact and develop robust mail reports that include all incoming contact, would it make a difference? I’m not so sure. To understand why you have to look at what information is actually collected from constituents and what resources are being used to control that collection process.

The Value of Incoming Contact

First, we need to talk about what constituents are sending in.  From my own interviews with staffers and reports performed by the Open Gov Foundation and Congressional Management Foundation, we see a diverse collection of different types of contact that comes into offices. Everything from policy request, campaigns, casework, and rants about the current state of the government are types of contact Member offices receive daily.

But how much of this information is valuable for policymaking? According to staffers, not that much. A significant portion of the incoming contact (some staffers reported more than half) does not include information that can help policymakers.

There are quite a few reasons why offices do not consider most of the contact valuable. Staffers report that contact can be untimely (after a bill has passed), includes low-effort scripted content, are emotional reactions to government issues that the office cannot help, does not include their location to confirm constituency, or the contact is uninformed and request more information. I will not go into a long list here. These are only some of the types of contact that are distrusted by staffers.

Of course, there is also a handful of constituents that call with valuable information, but staffers report that number is very low. And a low number of contact does not equate to a high salience issue in the district.

In addition to a low number of valuable contacts, offices hear a certain demographic of people and receive contact from the same body of engaged persons over and over. Not to mention that most contacts to offices are educated higher-class citizens [8].

If most of the incoming contact to Member offices are not valuable for policymaking purposes, then it appears rational to not put a lot of effort into using this contact for legislative purposes.

The Value of CRMs

The second issue, which I am most interested in discussing, are the resources used to manage constituent contact. When constituents contact their Members, staff take their contact and record it in a CRM (Customer Relations Management Software). CRMs are basically large databases to record all incoming contact. Contact is often labeled into different categories, also known in offices as ‘batching’. These categories or ‘batches’ are determined by the office and can include contact by bill, topic of concern, and extraneous things like batching for rants. Batching allows offices to organize and quantify constituent contact.

This technology plays a massive role in how Members choose to use constituent contact. It controls what information is actually collected and how it can be used. Offices rely so much on these technologies to manage incoming contact, that it has become normal to treat contact from constituents as a form of record. A data-point to be batched and responded to as efficiently as possible.

The result is that these systems perpetuate a process of surface-level responsiveness (in terms of responding with letters) rather than policy-level responsiveness and engagement. Current constituent correspondence technologies allow the continuance of an ineffective system, but it allows them to do so at greater scales and efficiency.

As long as offices continue to use this process, they are taking away valuable time and resource from more developing more valuable forms of engagement. Going back to Abernathy’s work, I don’t believe we should blame offices for their lack of responsiveness to these forms of contact. Constituent contact often provides too little information to be valuable for policymaking, and the software used to manage this contact focuses too much on batching and responding to constituents.

As one of my staff participants told me:

“They want their voices to be heard, and it’s me entering their info into a database ”

What’s Next? 

So how do we fix this? For one, we need offices to think more critically about using constituent correspondence as a form of record and response. This process already takes up so many resources in the offices and is yet worth so little in value.

Second, we need to provide better systems that produce more deliberative forms of engagement. And guess what?? People are doing this! (woohoo!) Read this book coming out soon.

My point is that more deliberative forms of engagement cannot exist within a technical system that promotes quantification and efficiency of responses rather than meaningful discussions. Rather than seeing this process as a failure of offices, I see it more as a reaction to the environment in which this correspondence takes place. We need to focus more on understanding why offices choose to use certain methods for correspondance, rather than blaming them for their poor actions.

[1] Miler, K.How Constituent Contact Matters in the U.S. Congress.

[2] Abernathy, C. Managing constituent correspondence: Implications for congressional learning and citizen advocacy. ://

[3]Bergan, D.E. & Cole, R.T. Polit Behav (2015) 37: 27.

[4] Butler, Daniel M., and David W. Nickerson. "Can learning constituency opinion affect how legislators vote? Results from a field experiment." Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6.1 (2011): 55-83.

[5] Karpf, David. "Online political mobilization from the advocacy group's perspective: Looking beyond clicktivism." Policy & Internet 2.4 (2010): 7-41.

[6] Voicemail to Votes. Open Gov Foundation.

[7] Abernathy, C. Legislative Correspondence Management Practices: Congressional Offices and the Treatment of Constituent Opinion. Disseration. 2015. 

[8] Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Featured image by Laura Lin From the Noun Project.