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In Search of a Citizen-Congress Feedback Loop

BY Nick Judd | Friday, August 26 2011

In a blog post yesterday, OpenCongress' Danny Shaw writes that over 1,500 letters have been sent on their platform since they launched a new feature about a month ago that allows users to tap Opencongress to send letters to their electeds:

Since we launched OpenCongress v.3 about one month ago, we’ve delivered more than 1,500 original messages to Congress about specific pieces of pending legislation. That may not sound like a lot compared to the numbers organization get with their petitions and form letters, but these are all individually-crafted, personalized and detail-rich messages, which research shows have a much stronger impact on members of Congress.

One of the things we're looking out for here at techPresident is the presence or absence of any actual feedback loops between people on Capitol Hill and constituents with things to say about how they're doing their jobs.

The folks at OpenCongress made their bid to join the organizers of those sorts of loops by launching a feature that allowed people to tap into their platform's data about bills, legislators, and opinion of site users while drafting emails to their representatives. The feature was part of a new version of the site that was rushed online in order to be available in time to catch the wave of interest in Congress created around the climax of debt ceiling talks last month.

Shaw quotes from several letters sent through OpenCongress, but only mentions one that got a reply: A letter to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas. In response to the letter, in support of the Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act, Jack and Pamela Berry received a letter that ended with thanks, the suggestion not to hesitate to contact Hutchison's office in the future, and this disclaimer:

PLEASE DO NOT REPLY to this message as this mailbox is only for the delivery of outbound messages, and is not monitored for replies. Due to the volume of mail Senator Hutchison receives, she requests that all email messages be sent through the contact form found on her website at http://hutchison.senate.gov/?p=email_kay .

If you would like more information about issues pending before the Senate, please visit the Senator's website at http://hutchison.senate.gov. You will find articles, floor statements, press releases, and weekly columns on current events.

This is all pretty boilerplate stuff — it's normal and indeed courteous for an email from an account that isn't monitored to say as much. But beginning a paragraph in an email to a constituent with "PLEASE DO NOT REPLY" may not convey precisely the message Hutchison's staff is meaning to send along.