Just this week, I officially completed a white paper that details the findings from my research I did this summer on the Hill.
Here are the main findings I discuss in the paper:
1. The primary uses of policy-related constituent correspondence are to formulate outgoing communication and to monitor constituent sentiment. This finding is reflected in views of the staff and reinforced by the capabilities and limitations of the constituent correspondence technology.
2. The current process for constituent correspondence does not promote policymaking that is responsive to constituent opinions. Staffers capture information during correspondence that logs minimal constituent opinion. It is shared with other staff by mail reports, which are shown in previous research to provide less useful information for responsive policymaking (Abernathy, 2015). Constituent opinion is also shared with other staff informally and upon the discretion of the correspondence staff.
3. Staffers report minimal policy value for advocacy related constituent input. The vast majority of constituent correspondence via digital channels, like phone calls, emails, and faxes, is not deemed relevant for policy decision-making. Junior staff who answer incoming contact describe such correspondence as under- or misinformed, untimely, or unrelated to current policy concerns of the Member. They report this low-valued form of communication has expanded with the introduction of automatic and low-effort forms of advocacy technology.
4. There is a common perception that Members are constitutionally obligated to provide open channels for constituents to express their policy opinions. Although untrue, 68% of staff reported that Members must legally provide open channels for constituent communication. This perception could translate into an assumption that it is necessary for Members to maintain and have a presence on an ever-growing number of digital communication platforms.
5. Constituent database technology is not designed to facilitate responsive forms of engagement. Staff report that constituent databases are painfully slow, hard to learn, and confusing to use. More importantly, the design of the system limits the quality of information captured by restricting what information can be collected. In so doing, the system narrows staffer activity to tracking rough sentiment and sending form response email and letters. These activities control the evaluation of correspondence staff and shape priorities of the entire office