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Can We Talk?

Dec 22, 2008
Good question.

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has been asking it vis-a-vis Congress for almost ten years, and their enlightening answer may be found in their report, Communicating with Congress: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialog (.pdf, 3.5Mb).

The good news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The bad news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The result: A huge increase in communications to Congress, by both citizens and grassroots advocacy groups, has resulted in the expenditure of a great deal of effort on the part of both senders and recipients in trying to manage—and in some cases, to thwart—the efforts of the other. Sophisticated software tools to efficiently deal with these communications has yet to be developed.

Until it is, CMF has several recommendations for each participant. Among them, for the individual citizen:

  1. Develop a good understanding of how Congress operates.
  2. Contact your representatives only once per issue.
  3. Limit each message to one issue.
  4. Use consistent email and postal addresses.
  5. Be concise and clear.
  6. Make a specific request, and refer to the number of the pertinent bill if you can.
  7. Be respectful, as difficult as that may be from time to time.
The 84-page report fleshes out these recommendations a great deal, of course.

We were most interested in CMF’s recommendations for grassroots advocacy groups. We are involved with many of them (see our listing of several at What Now, Where Now, How Now?) and have signed many a petition they have organized to forward to Congress. We want those communications to be effective. Here are some of CMF’s recommendations to them:
  1. Send every communication with the knowledge, consent and action of the citizen. (As far as we know, all the groups we are involved with do this.)
  2. Encourage citizens to personalize their messages in some way. (This also is common with the groups mentioned in the posting noted above.)
  3. Communications should only come from constituents.
  4. Notify citizens to whom their communications are being sent. (There is room for improvement with our groups here.)
  5. Identify the organization behind a grassroots campaign.
  6. Grassroot organizations should develop a better understanding of Congress.
  7. The purpose of a campaign should be to influence public policy, not overwhelm an office.
Recommendations to Congress include:
  1. Allocate more funds for Members’ staffing.
  2. Adapt to the new communication environment.
  3. Collaborate with advocacy/interest groups to identify solutions and solve problems. (Of course!)
  4. Fully utilize email to respond to constituents.
  5. Provide separate web forms for constituent service requests.
  6. Provide answers to legislative inquiries online.
  7. Diligently maintain your constituent database.
Optimizing citizen/representative communications is a huge challenge and a top priority of our new information age. The issue is of major public importance and should be publicly funded. We take part in enough advocacy group outreaches to Congress to know that if we are to avoid a Babel of conflicting technologies, increased animosity between the parties, and continuing bottlenecks to having our combined voices heard in Congress, then all parties must dedicate themselves to working together to craft the effective solutions that are available to us through technology.
tags: Congress | Working Together

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