With technology making it a lot easier to send messages to people, Members of Congress are now receiving 13 times as many messages than they did in 2001 (and that’s after email was already extremely popular and the internet was making communication easier). Constituents are actually sending 30 million messages to Congress annually, which means staff members are constantly looking for ways to make sure they’re effectively engaging with the folks reaching out to them. It’s with this in mind that the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on “improving constituent engagement through technology.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the hearing was how even though there are millions of messages being sent to Members of Congress every year, the average American still feels disconnected from their elected officials. Part of this comes from how despite there being 24/7 cable news networks that promote primarily partisan talking points and online forums that have titillating headlines designed to get a lot of clicks, it’s becoming harder to get information on local school boards or what your specific Congressperson is working on.
The messages being exchanged between politicians and their constituents aren’t helping the situation either. As Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation mentioned in his testimony before the committee, this is in large part because anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the 30 million messages received by the House of Representatives every year are generated by associations and nonprofits who get their supporters to contact politicians. 79 percent of these organizations even fully admit mass email campaigns are their top strategy for trying to influence Members of Congress.
In other words, there’s been a definite increase in the number of messages politicians receive but that doesn’t mean more people are actively engaging their elected officials on their own accord. This is different from before the internet became such a sought after organizing tool because there were only a few organizations that could afford to do a large message campaign when they were being forced to pay for printing out postcards and securing postage.
The increased number of mass email campaigns have resulted in understaffed Congressional offices being forced to deal with emails that don’t illustrate how an issue impacts individual communities, come from outside the district, and a variety of other factors that diminish the message’s value. It’s with that in mind that only three percent of senior staffers claim mass email campaigns influence lawmakers, which might also explain why only 40 percent of lawmakers are even reading the emails they receive.
What makes the situation further troubling for elected officials is Fitch focused in on how less than half of constituents who received a response to their email actually took the time to read it. These are people who are engaged enough in the process that they reached out to a Member of Congress, but even they appear to be disinterested in the response they receive. In a time when there’s already a lot of concern about people simply being apathetic towards what’s happening in current events, this is distrubing. The lack of action, however, simply suggests the public doesn’t believe the response will have anything meaningful in it and will leave them with an increase feeling of being ignored by politicians.
In case there was any doubt about the political ramifications of effectively engaging constituents, one can look at the 2018 midterm elections as Barbara Comstock received a lot of criticism for failing to hold any in person town hall meetings. This really frustrated people who frequently pointed out her district was in the suburbs of Washington, which would make it easier for her to hold the meetings when compared to her colleagues who had to travel across the country to get to their home district.
Even when Comstock used technology to reach out to constituents, she couldn’t seem use it effectively. In a telephone town hall that supposedly had 6,000 constituents on it back in February of 2017, for instance, less than a dozen people were able to ask questions. And even those didn’t leave people satisfied as they were screened by Comstock’s office and resulted in mostly softball questions that constituents weren’t able to further follow up on for more details.
A resident of the 10th Congressional District named Jan Hyland, for instance, told the Loudoun Times she felt the call “lacked substance” and highlighted how the Congresswoman missed a “perfect opportunity for her to share her so-called plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.” This was a crucial issue at the time as the call was held in the run up to the GOP holding votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act and all the benefits that go along with it. Comstock had been very wishy washy on the issue (despite voting to repeal it on multiple occasions) and constituents were disappointed when they couldn’t get a straight answer on healthcare reform from her or her office.
Comstock’s critics on the issue were among the 11 to 21 percent of Americans who don’t think Congress listens to the general public or cares what constituents think. The only way to fully address this is for politicians to reach out to constituents in a way that creates meaningful conversations that leave the public feeling valued. While in person conversations and town hall meetings would obviously help with these efforts, there are ways to do this through the internet.
One of the panelists, for example, highlighted how he was surprised after hearing from someone who said they actually enjoyed reading the newsletter their secretary of state sent out. The information was apparently well written and gave the woman know what was going on in her community instead of the partisan rhetoric she was used to receiving from other politicians. In other words, providing timely and relevant information resulted in someone seeing the value in information they received from a statewide official.
In addition to sending out newsletters, politicians can actually conduct online town halls (which can really prove beneficial for Members of Congress who represent districts far away from Washington). While there are some struggles in making sure members know they are interacting with their constituents and not just folks activist organizations have recruited from other areas, there are some forums working towards ways to address this. Facebook, for instance, has a “constituent badge” that people can use to show officials what district they live in.
Knowing that a person online is actually a constituent will help promote a more productive conversation because the politician will know the opinion they’re reading actually comes from a member of their community. It therefore carries a lot more weight and is harder to dismiss than the opinion of someone from outside the district who simply made a few clicks and sent in a message prepared by an advocacy group.
With how easy it is for advocacy groups to organize mass emails and other forms of communication, many politicians are still more aware of their views compared to those held by individual constituents. As Michael Neblo, a political science professor at the Ohio State University, highlighted while on the panel, this is largely because it can be difficult to fully engage individuals who have felt neglected by the political system. The professor suggests there are programs out there that can help take this a few steps further than Facebook’s “constituent badge” by recruiting diverse groups of people to participate in online forums, focus the conversation in on a single issue, and help provide constituents with the background information they’d need to properly engage in an in depth dialogue.
Even though all of the panelists agreed there needed to be a more productive discussion that expanded beyond the mass email campaigns that create most of the messages received by Members of Congress, it became obvious nobody thought the advocacy tactics organizations used would be changing anytime soon. The trick for politicians will be implementing tools that will allow them to gleam as much information as possible from the communications coming in while ensuring their staff is able to fully focus on crafting the best policy solutions possible.
That concept is something that former Congressional staffer Marci Harris is working on at a company she founded called POPVOX. She testified about how one of way of using technology to improve communication would be by creating tools that would provide lawmakers with analysis of the messages coming into their office. The same tool could also turn around and provide constituents with a fact sheet about legislation and links to the most recent statements their elected officials have made on the topic. This would not only help improve the conversation, but it would also mean staffers could spend less time on data entry and more time on conducting policy research and providing valuable advice to their boss.
All in all, the clear message of the hearing was both the lawmakers and panelists agreed action needed to be taken to have the conversation move beyond the form letters and partisan talking points that everyone’s become used to hearing. Whether it’s combining social media with telephone town halls, having more personalized and engaging messages, or using tools to further outreach to specific communities, there are several different avenues lawmakers can use to achieve these goals. The struggle simply is breaking away from ingrained habits to use the new tools that would better serve everyone involved.