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Do Not Blast: Hill Staffers Want Personalized Notes, Digital or Otherwise

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, January 31 2011

A new Congressional Management Foundation report, "Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizens Advocacy on Capitol Hill" (pdf)

Email and the Internet are, to be sure, making it functionally easier for the American public to reach out and touch their senators and representatives on the United States Congress, finds a new report out from the Congressional Management Foundation's Partnership for a More Perfect Union. But, according to congressional staffers surveyed as part of the study, that doesn't mean there's been a corresponding boom in the public's ability to actually shape the course of events happening on Capitol Hill. The rate of communications has swung upwards, finds the report, "Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizens Advocacy on Capitol Hill," (pdf) but the quality of the messages has headed in the opposite direction. A full 97% of the congressional aides asked as part of the report said that " electronic communications have increased the number of constituents who communicate with their offices." Yet at the same time, 65% of those same staffers said that "email and the Internet have reduced the quality of constituents' messages."

The culprit? Form mail, in part. The CMF report finds staffers saying that they make no distinction between email letters and ink-and-paper letters on form alone, judging them to be "as equally influential to an undecided Member." But there seemed to be something of a disdain for the petition-style emails churned out by some outreach campaigns, as well as for informal notes dashed and sent to Capitol Hill. "We get way too many email inputs that forward the Congressman some email or YouTube link with 'is this true' as the only message," says a House legislative director quoted in the report. What does catch the congressional ear? "Some helpful ways for constituents to personalize their messages," writes CMF, "include discussing the impact of a bill on the state or district, providing the reasons they support or oppose the bill or issue, and providing a relevant personal story."

Done with care, there's hope for getting heard, finds the report. Personalized messages from constituents, whether by mail or email or fax, fall below only attending an in-person event in the district for their power in getting a congressional office's attention. And Hill staffers are seeing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as places to listen and be heard. Some 64% of staffers think of Facebook as an important way to hear from constituents and 74% find it important for sharing out what their boss is thinking. For Twitter, the numbers are somewhat lower: 42% of staffers see Twitter as important in understanding what their constituents are saying, and 51% see it as an important way for them to get their message out.

But there's more than one way to skin a cat, or affect how a member of Congress behaves. Some 57% of Hill staffers find that online communications have a watchdog effect, having "made Senators and Representatives more accountable to their constituents."

The full "Communicating with Congress" report is here.