When an e-mail just isn’t enough

For those of us in the advocacy world who are familiar with Capitol Hill, it is well-known that congressional offices receive an onslaught of e-mail communications from constituents. Every day, constituents use online forms to contact their elected representatives about everything from their Social Security benefits to tours of the Capitol.

The volume of e-mail that Congress receives will inevitably continue to increase, especially amid heightened public scrutiny of Congress’s actions to deal with the economic crisis.

Understaffed offices face an enormous challenge in responding to these requests, each of which generally requires an individual response. My firm, Adfero Group, and its recently spun-off sister company, Fireside21, helped sponsor a report produced by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) — “Communicating with Congress” — that addresses this growing challenge.

The findings of the CMF report clearly show that the biggest challenge to improving the current process is the outdated way we are framing the problem. Right now, the paradigm for communicating with Congress is stuck in a pre-Internet mindset. Despite the CMF report’s subtitle of “Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue,” there is a general reluctance among Congress to address the specifics of what a two-way dialogue entails — and even less of an emphasis on actually fostering such a conversation.

We are stuck in a paradigm where individual constituents submit an online form to their congressmen detailing their concerns, and then wait for an e-mail response that is likely prepared by a congressional staffer.

The world has moved forward beyond this model, and so should Congress. The public now expects much more than an e-mail response that takes several days to appear in an inbox. The individuals who make up members’ constituencies are the same individuals who have recently enjoyed an unprecedented level of engagement in the political process. These are the individuals who could friend the 2008 presidential candidates on Facebook and follow their every campaign stop via Twitter. These are the individuals who collaborate to produce informative content on sites like Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers. These are the individuals who share their opinions in discussion forums and comment threads on political blogs.

When it comes to connecting with their elected officials, however, they are left with an online contact form and a promise for a prompt response. While some members have already started moving beyond this approach, Congress as a whole needs to change the current paradigm of back-and-forth communication to begin engaging in real conversation with constituents.

The first step for many members is to improve the content available on their official websites. Rather than focusing limited staff resources on ensuring each constituent receives an e-mail response, members should capitalize on the work their staffs have already done by publishing constituent letters online to make their stances on issues readily accessible.

Beyond just publishing these letters, members should open up these postings up for comment to allow constituents to ask questions and share their feedback. For example, as Congress debates executive compensation, members could share their proposed solution and ask constituents for their thoughts — creating a single location for them to engage with a wide range of constituents.

The necessary tools and technology to engage in this kind of dialogue online are not expensive, and moderating an online discussion will take far less time from members and their staffs than writing individual letters back to constituents.

Aside improving their own websites to facilitate an ongoing conversation with constituents, Congress should participate in outside discussions on policy. Some of these external approaches involve interacting with local media outlets, by participating in an online discussion responding to a reporter’s story or even submitting a full-length guest blog posting in response.

Other approaches are more novel, yet have already been put to good use by a number of members. Microblogging site Twitter can allow members to send real-time updates as Congress debates amendments to President Obama’s budget, or to announce their schedules for their next trip home. Much in the way that C-SPAN allowed Congress to speak directly into the living rooms of Americans, YouTube now offers an even more direct means of communicating via video that also allows constituents to provide feedback.

As a candidate, Obama used many of these tactics successfully, and has shown tremendous initiative to continue his conversation with the American people by making it easier for federal agencies to engage in a two-way dialogue.

The public has come to expect authentic engagement with those they have chosen to represent their interests. Congress has already transitioned once to adjust to the public’s evolving needs by shifting from a response process that relied on letters to one that used e-mails; it is time to overhaul its approach again.

Those of us who help connect constituents to Congress should be ready and willing to facilitate this transition to make our democratic process even more accessible and collaborative.

Mascott is the managing director of Adfero Group, a pioneering public relations firm
in Washington that integrates sophisticated digital strategies with traditional communications.