Latest Report on Communicating with Congress: Listen and Play Nice
BY Sarah Granger | Monday, December 15 2008
The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) just released their latest report, "Communicating with Congress: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue." In their words, the current problems with online communications (primarily e-mail) have "unintentionally hindered the democratic dialogue." The report continues: "The result has been misunderstanding, frustration, wasted effort, and even anger on both sides." That's not language often seen in a report like this, but it represents the weight of the situation. To respond, CMF has undergone an extensive process to determine solutions to the problems.
Since 1995, constituents have been able to e-mail members of Congress, but with the volume of e-mail ever increasing and due to spam, viruses, etc. congressional staff was essentially forced into using web forms and e-mail filtering. No uniform process exists, and a misunderstanding of the level of importance e-mail should have in terms of relaying the public voice pervades both Houses. The stakeholders include citizens, members of congress and their staff, organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns, and vendors that provide tools and communications management.
The point of the project: "to identify the perceptions, expectations and practices of both sides of congressional communications; provide information to educate and guide congressional offices, citizens, and the grassroots community; promote changes in the attitudes and practices
of both sides; and facilitate collaboration and information-sharing that will result in more meaningful and manageable dialogue." The goal: for these stakeholders to "truly realize the tremendous opportunities for electronic communications between citizens and their representatives in Congress."
The report included numerous interactions with multiple stakeholders including hundreds of congressional staffers, and it took into account public feedback on the draft report, released in June. The final report found that although the Internet is cheaper and easier to communicate with Congress creating more communications, they are less effective - partly due to staff overload and partly due to a misunderstood, ill-equipped process. As a result, one of the major goals of the report was to provide specific recommendations to each stakeholder group. The recommendations get into minutiae that are important for stakeholders to understand including things like what fields to track in congressional web forms.
The report also attempts to educate each group about the others and about why e-mail is an important communication tool, particularly relating to the phenomenon of the poli-fluentials. They include a chart on p. 41 of myth vs. reality of responding to e-mail with e-mail, in an attempt to educate members of Congress and their staffers to the effect that people who use e-mail are actually quite civic minded and highly engaged.
Overall, it's an impressive document, clearly well thought-out, extensively studied, and cleanly articulated. The bottom line is that although the report is the "capstone of the project", CMF and the Communicating with Congress Working Group (including Capitol Advantage, Convio, Grassroots Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, National Write Your Congressman and more) that put together the report recommends convening a task force to evaluate and implement the recommended solutions. Such a task force would need to include influential members of each stakeholder group in order to be truly effective.
"It is not enough to make recommendations and put forward new models for improved communications. Neither will actually affect change unless the stakeholders act on those recommendations and together take steps to collaborate on solutions." They have their work cut out for them.