Report: Constituent communications up nearly 1,000 percent

Congressional offices that are late to adopt technology are reporting greater difficulty keeping up with huge increases in constituent communications, according to a report by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF).

Released Tuesday, “Communicating With Congress: How Citizen Advocacy is Changing Mail Operations on Capitol Hill” finds that most congressional offices have seen a 200 to 1,000 percent increase in constituent communication volume in the past decade.

The big problem is that Congress has not increased staff size in personal offices since 1979, limiting lawmakers’ ability to add staff to address the new demands.

“I don’t know any industry that could absorb a ten-fold increase in customer interest at a zero increase in labor to respond to that interest,” CMF President and CEO Bradford Fitch told The Hill.

Of the 260 report respondents, 95 percent of those on the Senate staff and 89 percent of those on the House staff said that responding to constituent communications was a high priority in their offices. More than half of staffers surveyed also reported spending more time on such communications than they did two years ago.

But staffers in offices embracing technology early on were much more likely to report that they had sufficient resources to manage constituent communications than those offices that were considered late adopters of technology.

One significant factor in technology helping to tackle the load is offices responding to constituent letters via email rather than a reply letter, said Fitch. Those that don’t are operating at a disadvantage.

“In many cases, they’re seeming to apply the 20th-century paradigm of responding to a letter with a letter,” he said. “And that means, ‘OK, let's work weekends and let's work nights,’ and that’s their solution, as opposed to, ‘Wait a minute, this is an entirely new paradigm.’ ”

Additional ways to tackle increased communication include identifying efficiencies and streamlining processes, said Fitch. Offices are also encouraged to create robust websites with greater issue content information, which will reduce the need for constituents to contact lawmakers.

Michael Pagan, communications director for Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), has seen first-hand the benefit of technology in his office.

“Yes, our office has definitely seen an increase in constituent communications over the past several years and we do indeed take advantage of technology as much as possible, especially email and social networking sites, to deal with the increase,” he wrote in an email.

“It helps us get back to our constituents so much faster than using snail mail,” he added.

While congressional offices continue to labor under restricted staff sizes — looking to technology to fill the gap — the increase in constituent communications could be viewed as a good thing, said Fitch.

“There’s a positive general note in here, in that more people are contacting Congress at a time when cynicism is rising and certainly their approval ratings are going lower,” he said. “They still are the go-to guys, they still are the people that citizens want to interact with and want to communicate with.”