Jul/Aug 2006

How will the "logic puzzle" and similar changes to congressional communication practices affect online advocacy?

by David Crooke, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Convio

Many nonprofit organizations are concerned about recent moves by congressional offices to introduce new technology that adds steps to the process for constituents who want to communicate online with their federal legislators. The technology is designed to require human interaction, thereby preventing automated mass use of Web site forms to send messages to legislators. The most prominent example — and the focus of current controversy and debate — is the "logic puzzle" feature recently added to the House of Representatives "WriteRep" form.

There are two primary reasons that legislative offices are adopting this technology.

The first is limited staff and, therefore, capacity to manage the exponential increase in in-bound constituent emails. According to a study by the Congressional Management Foundation (http://www.cmfweb.org/), in recent years, the volume of constituent communications has risen several-fold — all online. This surge largely is due to the success of online advocacy campaigns orchestrated by nonprofits using online advocacy software (such as Convio Advocacy). Meanwhile, congressional office staffing has remained constant since the late 1970s.

The second factor driving congressional office adoption of these new technology approaches is lack of trust. The Congressional Management Foundation study also found that up to 75 percent of congressional staff members suspect (erroneously) that advocacy groups often send mass online communications without the constituents' knowledge or participation.

The reality is that when Web masters on Capitol Hill implement technical barriers to facilitated online constituent communications, software vendors develop workarounds. For example, Convio Advocacy now displays the WriteRep logic puzzle to constituents, allowing them to respond to it on the organization's Web site. This latest technical escalation will give Congress objective evidence that individual constituents have sanctioned these communications. However, with this type of workaround, the logic puzzle will have less impact on reducing email volume than anticipated. So, the capacity problem will persist.

Assuring the future of online constituent communications in the political process relies on cooperative and creative problem-solving by all stakeholders, including federal lawmakers, nonprofit organizations, constituents and software vendors. Mutual understanding, trust and commitment to developing solutions that work for all participants are critical. In today's e-world, a vibrant American democracy depends on implementing technologies that allow advocacy groups and their constituents to easily voice their opinions in ways that are efficient and manageable for their elected lawmakers.

A dialog is underway to develop a winning solution for everyone. Convio and other leading advocacy software and consulting companies have formed a vendor coalition to collaborate on an industry-wide effort to work with Congress on this issue. The vendor coalition, House Administration and the WriteRep author met for the first time on July 19 for a positive and open discussion. The vendor coalition's proposal to collaborate on better technology for delivering activism communications was well received.

In addition, a non-partisan advocacy coalition of leading organizations that engage in online activism is working to educate Congress about industry practices.

For more information and to get involved in the advocacy coalition, visit http://www.dontblockmyvoice.org/.


How will the "logic puzzle" and similar changes to congressional communication practices affect online advocacy? | Convio