WASHINGTON - July 11 - Online communications tools have contributed to a surge in new communications to Congress -- 200 million in 2004, up from 50 million in 1995 -- according to a new study by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF). Of those 200 million messages sent to Congress last year by the public, 91 percent, or 182 million, were sent online, while only 9 percent, or 18 million, were sent by postal mail.|
Despite the increase in communications, the report's survey research of House and Senate staff show they believe that the Internet and e-mail have had a positive effect on the democratic process. For example, 79 percent believe the Internet has made it easier for a citizen to get involved in the public policy process; 55 percent believe it has increased public understand of what goes on in Washington; while 48 percent (a plurality) believe it has made Members more responsive to their constituents.
The report, "Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy," was released as Capitol Hill is bracing for what is expected to be the largest grassroots campaign in history over the upcoming Supreme Court nomination vote in the Senate. The research indicates that some communications strategies employed by grassroots organizations are not effective.
"This report suggests that grassroots groups that are preparing to bombard the Congress with messages for and against the President's nominee, as well as congressional offices, should consider modifying their standard practices," said Rick Shapiro, the executive director of CMF. "If they don't make changes, congressional offices will have a very hard time processing these messages, responding to constituents, and integrating their views into the decision-making process. And those hoping to influence the process may find that their efforts have little impact on the outcome," said Shapiro.
The staff surveys indicate that identical form communications, which represent the vast majority of messages sent to Capitol Hill, are the least influential communications vehicles. Personalized or individualized messages to Congress have more influence on Members' decision-making process than do identical form messages. Only 3 percent 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 percent of individualized postal letters and 34 percent of individualized e-mail messages would have "a lot" of influence. Interestingly, only 15 percent of staff surveyed said that a "visit from a lobbyist" would have "a lot" of influence -- meaning that personalized letters and e-mails from constituents have more influence than visits from lobbyists.
The report also points out weaknesses in congressional offices' ability to respond to the increase in communications. For example, only 17 percent of House offices and 38 percent of Senate offices answer all of their e-mail with e-mail. Instead, the majority still respond to some or all of their e-mails with postal letter responses.
To improve the process, the report identified a series of steps that both Congress and the grassroots community could employ. "Citizens and Congress have a shared interest in improving communications between them. Both sides want and benefit from a robust and meaningful discourse. Members and their staff would like to see communications occur in ways that are both valuable and manageable to their offices. Citizens and the grassroots community want to know that they are succeeding in making their voices heard and influencing the legislative process. Consequently, it is in the interest of both parties to consider making changes that better serve these shared interests," the report said.
The report is based on surveys of more than 350 House and Senate staff in 202 offices as well as focus groups and interviews with staff and reviews of communications volume data from the House and the Senate.
CMF is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization dedicated to improving the effectiveness of Congress. The report was funded by Capitol Advantage, BlueCross BlueShield Association and Chevron Corporation.
(FULL REPORT: http://www.cmfweb.org)