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What Congress Might Do With All Those Emails

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 15 2012

At Personal Democracy Forum 2012, Shayna Englin began her talk with a provocative statement about emails sent to members of Congress.

"The quick answer to what does Congress do with all those emails," Englin said, "is ... nothing."

Of course that's not completely true. But with nearly half of American adults polled in a recent survey saying that they had contacted their member of Congress, there's a whole lot of noise headed towards congressional staffers responsible for sorting through incoming communications — enough that it's uncontroversial to say, at the least, that it's difficult for staffers to find the signal. Emails sent at the behest of a third party like an advocacy organization, she said, come at such volume that it's difficult for staffers to suss out messages from constituents, messages from people who live outside their member's district, and ones that are so cookie-cutter as to barely count as a message from a real person at all.

Englin's point is that in-person communications with congressional staffers is the most effective form of advocacy, and that advocacy organizations should focus on making it easier for people to call or meet with representatives than on continuing to deluge offices with emails. This is also not a controversial statement to make. But the Republican House leadership is experimenting with tools that might make it easier for members of Congress to more easily understand what their incoming communications might mean in aggregate. There are also tools that track messages headed outbound towards Congress, like PopVox, that hope to give perspective on what representatives are hearing from the outside looking in.

Citing privacy concerns, staffers for house leaders have not been willing to share the data they have about the messages they're getting. Absent that data, it's hard to say for certain what members of Congress really can do with all of those emails.

In this video, Dan Beckmann from the technology firm ib5k describes how his company's platform, Correlate, is designed to solve one aspect of the problem Englin describes in her talk. It is now in use by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer — a Democrat — and may appear elsewhere within House leadership soon, Beckmann says.

"Once we get the social media component up and are done testing it," he told me, "we're figuring out how do we get this into as many offices as possible."

Here's the video of part of our conversation.