Featured image

Staff perspectives on the state of constituent correspondence in the U.S. Congress

Recent investigations provide some of the first examinations of the systemic flow of telephone, email, fax, and social media correspondence through Members’ offices. These investigations find little evidence that Members’ offices have developed coherent pathways for including and considering citizen opinion in policy decision-making. Why are voicemails not turning into votes and how do Member offices actually use constituent contact? To explore these questions, I surveyed congressional staff from 26 offices to discuss their use and perceptions of constituent correspondence. I use staff beliefs and perceptions as the primary analysis component to capture the logical underpinnings of staff behavior. A full presentation of those findings is described in a report published this year. Here, I present a few of the report’s findings and main takeaways.

Monitoring and Responding

From the perspective of Members’ offices, the primary uses of policy-related constituent correspondence are two-fold: monitor constituent sentiment and formulate outgoing communication. This finding is reflected in the views of the staff and reinforced by the capabilities and limitations of the correspondence technology. Monitoring enables staff to surveil rough constituent sentiment at a surface level. This is done by using the constituent databases to log brief descriptions of constituent contacts, such as ‘Pro/Con H.R. X’, and quantifying the frequency of contact about different topics. Once collected, the type and frequency of constituent contact determines the development of formal responses. These responses are ‘thank you’ letters written to constituents in return for their efforts of contacting the Member’s office. Staffers describe these letters as a resource to educate constituents on the Members policy stances and to keep constituents happy with an acknowledgment of their contact effort.

The process of monitoring and responding to constituent contact does not prioritize responsive actions that transfer information learned from constituents into policy decision-making. Reportedly, constituent opinion is shared through conversations with policy staff and Members or through mail reports, which previous research has shown as ineffective for responsive policymaking.

It’s Not That Valuable

When describing why correspondence isn’t used to inform responsive policy-making, staffers report that constituent opinions have minimal policy value. The vast majority of constituent correspondence via digital channels, like telephone, email, and fax, is deemed irrelevant for policy decision-making. Junior staff who are responsible for logging constituent input describe such correspondence as often under- or misinformed, untimely, or unrelated to current policy concerns of the Member. They report that the value of computer-mediated communication has decreased substantially with the introduction of automatic and low-effort forms of advocacy technology. If the majority of incoming correspondence is not informative, then correspondence staff have little incentive to provide this information to policy staff.

Technology to Improve What?

Constituent databases are often designed in ways that do not facilitate quality 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 by staff. 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 correspondence priorities of the entire office.

Main Takeaways

There is clear evidence that contact from constituents through telephone, email, social media, and letters is not absorbed by Members and rarely influences policy. Rather, constituent communication is used to surveil rough constituent sentiment. As a result, constituent correspondence in its current state should be recognized as a tool for monitoring rather than an avenue for engagement.

Staffers provide logical reasons why they believe constituent contact in its current form is not valuable for policy decision-making. Yet, advocacy groups continue to promote such contact. Lack of awareness of the current pitfalls involved in the translation of constituent correspondence to policy decision- making leads advocacy groups to continue pushing for the use of an inefficient system. And this lack of responsiveness is not advertised, most likely due to fear of retaliation from constituents. Current communication practices exhaust staff time and resources because energy is directed toward tracking sentiment and “responding” in a timely manner to constituent contact via form messages. There will be a minimal effect of constituent correspondence on policymaking unless certain de-valued forms of contact are reduced, and staff concerns are made transparent to citizens.

If Congress continues to maintain technology systems that focus on monitoring and superficial responses, then the actions of monitoring and sending form responses will perpetuate. Although more efficient and automated communication processes are essential to increasing the efficiency of each office, improving the current technology will not fix the underlying assumptions about the value of correspondence that are engrained in the culture of Congress. The technology will only assist Congress in continuing its current communication practices at larger scales and efficiencies. This will continue to create a disconnect between citizens and Members as advocacy technology raises expectations for Members to become more engaged and responsive to constituent concerns without the means to appropriately capture complete and relevant information from constituents.

Samantha McDonald
I’m a 3rd year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. I work under the ...