Findings and Analysis
Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than 1995—all of the increase from Internet-based communications. Congress received 200,388,993 communications in 2004: the House received 10,400,000 communications by post and 99,053,399 via the Internet; the Senate received 7,935,594 by post and 83,000,000 via the Internet. During this decade, the staffing levels of Members’ personal offices have not changed.
Congressional offices are devoting more resources to managing the growing volume of constituent communications. Of managers surveyed, 73% say their offices spend more time on constituent communications than two years ago. Half of House and Senate senior managers surveyed also report their offices have reallocated resources to responding to communications over the last two years. However, only 17% of House offices and 38% of Senate offices answer all incoming e-mail with e-mail. The large majority of offices respond to some or all of their e-mail with postal letters.
The Internet is generally having a positive effect on the discourse between citizens and Congress. A large majority of congressional staff surveyed, 79%, believe the Internet has made it easier for citizens to become involved in public policy; 55% believe it has increased public understanding of what goes on in Washington; and a plurality of 48% believe it has made Members more responsive to their constituents.
Many congressional staff doubt the legitimacy of identical form communications, and want to know whether communications are sent with constituents’ knowledge and consent. Half of congressional staff surveyed believe identical form communications are not sent with constituents’ knowledge or consent. Another 25% are unsure about the legitimacy of these communications. Additionally, 89% would like the ability to differentiate list-generated campaigns from those sent through direct constituent action.
Personalized or individualized messages to Congress have more influence on Members’ decision-making process than do identical form messages. Only 3% of staff surveyed say identical form postal mail would have “a lot” of influence on their Member of Congress if he/she had not reached a decision. In contrast, 44% report individualized postal letters would have “a lot” of influence.
People who engage in political activities online or who write to their elected officials are very likely to be active members of their communities. Citizens who write or call their elected officials are about six times more likely than the general public to belong to a group trying to influence public policy or to attend a political rally, speech or protest; three times more likely to write an article for a magazine or newspaper; and four times more likely to work for a political party. Consequently, constituents who write Congress tend to be politically active and have disproportionate political influence in their communities.
Implications for citizens and the grassroots community
Quality is more persuasive than quantity. Thoughtful, personalized constituent messages generally have more influence than a large number of identical form messages. Grassroots campaigns should consider placing greater emphasis on generating messages of higher quality and reducing form communications.
The organization behind a grassroots campaign matters. Grassroots organizations should consider identifying the source of each campaign.
Grassroots organizations should develop a better understanding of Congress. The quality and impact of constituent communications would increase if organizations generating mass mail campaigns better understood Congress and the legislative process and adapted their efforts to the way congressional offices operate.
There is a difference between being noticed and having an impact. Bad grassroots practices may get noticed on Capitol Hill, but they tend not to be effective in influencing the opinions of Members of Congress, and sometimes damage the relationship between congressional offices and grassroots organizations.
Implications for congress
There is a new communications environment to which Congress will need to adapt. The Internet has gone far beyond simply providing new tools to perform old tasks. In order to adapt to the new environment that the Internet has created, Congress must adopt an entirely new communications paradigm.
Congress must improve online communications. Members of Congress should improve the timeliness of their responses, reach out to grassroots organizations to help identify better means for communicating, and answer e-mail with e-mail.
Managing in the new environment may require new capabilities and new thinking. Congress should consider: providing Members with additional staff and resources to manage the rapidly growing volume of constituent communications; expanding the use of technology; adopting new management policies and/or establishing a task force to identify solutions to the growing communications challenges.
The new environment provides benefits that Members of Congress and their staffs have not yet fully appreciated. By embracing new communications tools, each Member could: connect to thousands more constituents; better connect to politically active citizens; save money; improve their image; and learn to better operate in the Information Age.
- Includes only postal mail and e-mail communications. Aggregate data on faxes and phone calls is not available.
- The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, Political Influentials Online in the 2004 Presidential Campaign [link to PDF] and unpublished data collected for this report.