From citizens to data points: A word of caution for legislators


Currently, uses of technology in Congress are preventing citizens from meaningfully engaging with their policymakers. Technologies such as constituent databases provide helpful tools for collecting, storing, and analyzing constituent communication. However, these technologies promote the datafication of citizen information. This configures and constrains (1) how policymakers engage citizens as possible actors within the policymaking process; and (2) how staff labor is allocated and distributed. We urge legislators and staff to think critically about what technology they adopt and how these systems affect their perceptions of citizen input in the policymaking process.

Communications technology not only mediates communication, it shapes the idea of what communication can be. From the ‘like’ or ‘upvote’ button on social media, to the entire database structure underlying the platform, the design of any system controls the data available for collection and action. In NASA spacecraft teams, for example, scholars found that the use of bullet slides in PowerPoint and grid layouts in Excel affect the ability of teams to collaborate and organize work on space orbiter and rover missions. These tools change what is identified as scientific data. The same impact is true for various digital technology used in the offices of Congress Members. The systems adopted configure how congressional offices can think and act upon the data presented.

Members adopt a wide array of information and communications technology that improve the efficiency of their office duties. The constituent management systems (CRMs) or constituent databases, are one of these tools. CRMs help offices manage the ever-growing volume of constituent communication. They enable communication with citizens by logging, tracking, and categorizing, and responding to incoming contact. When a person calls a Member’s office, attends a meeting with a Member, sends an email, postal mail, fax, or shares a social media post, that information is logged into the CRM.

During two summers of fieldwork in Washington D.C., we interviewed 48 congressional staffers, attended multiple congressional technology conferences, and spoke with technology vendors to understand how CRMs shape the role of constituent correspondence in Members’ offices. We found that CRMs promote the datafication of citizen information in ways that inhibit the Members ability to substantively engage within constituent views. These technologies also change the duties of staff who become overworked database administrators and gatekeepers of citizen input. We provide three brief examples from our recent paper to help summarize these findings and suggest ways to improve the current situation.

Prioritizing Data Collection

Staff are focused on eliciting three primary pieces of information from every citizen who contacts their Member’s office: name, address, and reason for contact. A name is required for identification of the citizen and to create a profile in the database. Home address is used for constituency authentication. Lastly, the staffer is expected to document, with minimal elaboration, the reason for contact.

This base information prioritized by staff is, not surprisingly, the field requirements for the CRMs database record. Staff are directly entering this information into the CRM while listening the constituent phone calls. This method limits flexibility in data collection. Staff have little incentive to collect any information of nuance or substance, thereby restricting the effectiveness and value of constituent communication. By collecting only these three pieces of information necessary for the CRM, staff dichotomize citizens into those who “know the drill” and those who don’t.

“There are two categories of constituents: People who call a lot. They know the drill, they know to give their name, address, and what they are calling about. They keep it pretty straightforward. People who call for the first time who really want to talk a lot. Sometimes I have to get the name/ address out of them mid-conversation.”

Given the information requirements of the CRMs, conversations between staff and citizens center around the information needs of the system and not around the reason for calling. For example, by asking the citizen to state their name and address mid-conversation, the staffer is demonstrating how CRMs creates discursive expectations, molding conversations between citizens and policymakers into a procedural task of data input. As one staffer emphasized,

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

Analyzing Citizen Data

Once information from citizen contact is logged in the CRM, the citizen’s opinion becomes a quantifiable data points that can be manipulated and aggregated in specific ways. Staff use these records of citizen communication to track general sentiment and to create measures of citizen interest in a topic to develop and deploy standardized responses.

Typically, the primary output of this data is mail reports. These analyses pre-dominantly contain information about the efficiency of the correspondence process – detailing the number of total contacts from citizens about an issue per week and/or the letter-writing rates of staff responding to citizens thanking them for their contact. As highlighted by Professor Claire Abernathy, these reports often provide minimal information about the reasons citizens contact their Member, not even their pro/con status. There is little evidence that this information is prioritized for policy decision-making. The CRMs render citizens into aggregate data, reducing the value of dialogue and reason-giving by citizens to near zero.

“[I] probably wouldn’t call my Representative… I would just be another number in the yes column.”

 “…honestly I was a little surprised. Because (Congress) gets so many calls, right? It’s more like just data collection. I understand data ’speaks for itself’, but still I don’t know. I just felt like there was something missing.”

Office Labor

Processing citizen contact in the CRMs is almost exclusively performed by the Members’ communications staff such as interns, Legislative Correspondents, and Staff Assistants. These staffers are expected to answer, listen, respond, and organize all incoming citizen contact. Managing the CRMs is a time-consuming process for correspondence staff. Staff report spending two to four hours a day manually batching citizen contact into different topics. During high salience issues or after weekends, some staff report spending the entire day batching correspondence by different topic labels.

“The job of an LC is a stepping stone; this job is boring. No one wants this job.”

Despite being the front lines of citizen communication, these correspondence staff frequently describe their job as having low value within a Member’s office. The culture of congressional staffers assumes that such correspondence jobs are akin to paying one’s dues for one to two years before promotion to a higher value job within the office. This diminishes the role of constituent input into the office. The role of correspondence staff is shifted to that of a database administrator, making it difficult for anyone in this role to think critically about constituency impact on the office.

Is This New?

Although CRMs play a large role in configuring the ways Members and citizens communicate, the practices of tracking citizen opinion through summarized information is not new to Congress. Documented summaries of volume, position, and tone of contact for particular issues have historical roots in decades-long practices. However, technology plays an important role in reinforcing norms. Now that tracking citizen opinion has been digitized into a built-in technology filter, the technology reinforces and legitimizes these norms as a primary form of documentation and limits other possible forms of engaging.

The Takeaway

CRMs are useful tools for offices. But when offices are over-reliant on them to manage communication, they condition staff expectations of what communication should be. As many congressional scholars have argued, these practices are failing to engage constituents and representatives in a meaningful way.

Tracking citizen opinion data is prioritized over listening. And, in order to track, staff must spend immense amounts labor inputting this data into the CRMs. But, the question remains, what do Members really get from this information? The data is used to surveil, not to engage. Most staff emphasize that incoming communication is unhelpful or uninformed enough to make policy decisions – making the information of little utility to the office. If CRMs require hours of manual labor to quantify datapoints that have little to no impact on the office’s policy decision-making, then the very value of tracking citizen input is called into question.

It is always seductive to see a new technology in terms of innovative potential. However, technologies like the CRMs reinforce norms that do not promote meaningful practices of constituent communication. The time and effort of staff could be better used to explore and experiment with methods and technologies that promote other forms of engagement. There are many ways people are thinking and testing new methods – just see these examples [1][2][3]. The point is for offices to think critically about what technology can and cannot do to improve constituent communication as it strives towards better democratic engagement.

Samantha McDonald (@SamMcD13) is an Ph.D. candidate in Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Melissa Mazmanian is an associate professor in the School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

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