Report Calls for Better Member-Constituent E-Mail Management

Posted December 22, 2008 at 3:46pm

Nine years of surveys, workshops and studies have led experts studying communication between constituents and their Members of Congress to a major conclusion: What’s really needed is a task force.

The Congressional Management Foundation is recommending a new way of handling the landslide of e-mails that routinely threaten to bury Congressional inboxes — but it says a body made up of representatives from lawmakers’ offices, vendors serving both lawmakers and advocates, grass-roots organizers, citizens and others now must do the heavy lifting.

The report says the solution to frustration on both sides of constituent-lawmaker communications — where Member offices feel overwhelmed by the volume and citizens worry their voices aren’t being heard — is a system that compiles e-mail from Members’ own Web forms and from outside campaigns. Dubbed an “Aggregated Communications Dashboard,” the system would allow incoming e-mails to be identified both as single contacts and as part of larger advocacy campaigns, where appropriate. “The new model would allow offices to manage the volume without losing the meaning of the campaign or the sense of the involvement of the individual constituent behind each message,” the report states.

Such an approach rejects calls to allow lawmakers to ignore e-mails that didn’t originate on their own Web forms. “While there were quick and easy fixes … not all of them were palatable because of their detrimental impact on the dialogue on which our democracy was based,” it says.

On the other hand, the system recommended in the report does not require lawmakers already swamped with messages to accept e-mail not only from their own districts and states, but also from the rest of the country. “Congressional offices that can barely manage the volumes they are getting from their own constituents are hardly in a position to tackle messages from all 50 states,” it says.

The report provides a mock-up view of what the dashboard would look like: It allows a user to sort e-mails by both the issue and the advocacy campaign, where relevant. To implement it, the report says much of the responsibility falls on the vendors used by lawmakers’ offices and by advocacy groups.

The foundation says it has identified “key participants” from each group with an interest in the new system (possible participants could include Members, citizens, technology vendors or grass-roots organizations) and suggests they begin meeting as a task force. “The task force must take up this work product — viewing it as a starting point — and begin in the discussions and negotiations necessary to bring about a new system that is mutually beneficial to everyone,” the report concludes.

The report is the culmination of nearly a decade of research and reports on the subject of Congressional communications.