Campus Notebook: Report Shows Increase in Mail Burdens Offices

Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:23pm

The amount of mail sent to Congress is skyrocketing, but the number of people reading it has not changed much, according to a report released Tuesday.

A study by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing efficiency on the Hill, found that Congressional offices have experienced a 200 percent to 1,000 percent increase in mail volume during the past decade.

In 2005, 73 percent of Congressional offices said that they spent more time on constituent mail than they did during the preceding two years, according to the report. Last year, only 58 percent said the same, indicative of the ways in which offices have made changes to try to stay ahead of the curve.

The Internet is the major factor, allowing constituents to contact their Representatives via email, according to the study titled “How Citizen Advocacy is Changing Mail Operations on Capitol Hill.”

But at the same time, “Congress has not increased staff size in personal offices since 1979,” the report said.

“When a seismic shift occurs in any work environment, such as managing a ten-fold increase in customer interest without a substantial increase in labor to support that interest, organizations should ask strategic questions about how they operate.”

Budget constraints have made it difficult to keep up with the increase in correspondence.

The House and Senate cut lawmakers’ allowances for personnel salaries and office expenses by 5 percent early in the year, and slightly larger cuts are expected for fiscal 2012.

Rep. Mike Honda, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, has fought the reductions, noting that his office received more mail so far this year than during any year since his election in 2001.

“While the Republican majority pledges to usher in a more accountable and open government, they slash the very tools that lawmakers need to actively engage with their constituents back home,” the California Democrat said.

But Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said the report indicates that Members have a strong incentive to embrace email correspondence and tap into new technologies.

“When you’re in budget-cutting mode, you have to get creative and ask, ‘How do I still fulfill my mission with the resources I’ve been given when I’ve got a greater demand?’” Fitch said.

Four years ago, staffers in the office of Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) overhauled the office structure to address the rising mail volume.

They created a “director of constituent correspondence” position to oversee incoming and outgoing mail and gave that position seniority on par with that of the legislative director. Typically, entry-level staffers handle constituent mail.

“These are challenges that everyone faces,” LaTourette Chief of Staff Dino DiSanto said about the adjustments his office had to make in tough budget times. “But we’ve tried to embrace them, not pigeon-hole ourselves in traditional methods of how we communicate with constituents.”

GAO Prepares for Cuts

The Government Accountability Office might announce layoffs or other budget cuts the week of Oct. 17.

GAO staffers were informed of the timeline in a recent broadcast voice mail from agency head Gene Dodaro, spokesman Chuck Young confirmed.

“The hope is to determine what adjustments need to be made to the GAO budget by then,” Young said.

Young stressed that it was impossible to predict what these adjustments might entail but added that GAO headquarters and field offices are being targeted “in terms of figuring out the impacts and what can be done to absorb the budget cuts.”

He said there is a task force studying all 11 field offices around the country for possible changes and consolidations.

Some GAO employees said they have been told the consequences of these studies could be dire: 250 to 500 staffers could be let go in the next two weeks — about one-sixth of the GAO workforce of 3,000 — and two to three field offices could be shuttered.

One staffer who has worked at the GAO for almost 30 years said the cuts could be based on seniority, forcing some staffers to choose a demotion or a pay cut.

“These numbers are purely speculation, and no decisions have been made,” Young said.

The House passed a spending bill in July that would give the GAO a 6 percent cut from fiscal 2011, while the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed a measure in September that slates a 7.6 percent reduction from the previous fiscal year.

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