Jul/Aug 2008

Ask the Expert: What Is Being Done to Improve Advocacy Communications with Congress?

by Dr. Bill Pease, Chief Scientist, Convio

Most nonprofits that conduct online advocacy campaigns are aware that Capitol Hill offices are overwhelmed by the volume of constituent communications. Offices have responded by turning off their public email addresses — at the federal level, only 20% of federal legislators currently accept email.

Most offices have switched to Web form communications, which allow elected officials to deploy a number of tools that discourage communications, ranging from district matching to CAPTCHA tests and logic puzzles. Each office sets unique requirements for successful Web form submissions, thus forcing vendors and organizations to maintain hundreds of custom "connectors" to Capitol Hill offices. Some offices outright refuse to accept citizens' comments unless these comments originate from the office's Web site, effectively banning communications from any third-party organization.

In 2007, to address these increasing barriers to citizen engagement, Convio joined with other leading advocacy vendors and formed the Communicating with Congress Coalition. The Coalition provided the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) funding to:

  • organize stakeholder meetings with representatives from Capitol Hill and the nonprofit advocacy community;
  • conduct a survey of how the general public wants to communicate with elected officials; and
  • make recommendations to improve the communication process and end the delivery barrier arms race.

CMF's initial work is now complete and provides a strong rationale for establishing a new communications system with Capitol Hill.

What were the results of CMF's citizen survey?

CMF's citizen survey (PDF) found a dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who contact federal elected officials. It attributed much of the growth in citizen engagement to online mobilization efforts by interest groups.

The survey results contradict the widely held (but unfounded) belief in Capitol Hill offices that real citizens are not behind the surge in constituent communications. The survey also verifies the legitimacy of Internet-generated communications and validates the role of nonprofit organizations as trusted intermediaries.

According to the survey results, citizens want elected officials to engage with them, but are currently unsatisfied with Congressional attitudes and practices. A majority of citizens do not think Congress members care about what they have to say. Half of those who had received a response after contacting Congress were not satisfied with the reply.

The survey also provides a compelling rationale for Hill offices to do a better job: In comparison with the general public, citizens who contact Congress are much more engaged in a wide variety of political activities, and any smart legislator should want to cultivate these individuals.  

What are CMF's recommendations?

CMF's recommendations (PDF) include an outline for a new model for constituent communications that will enable Capitol Hill offices to efficiently process the large volume of messages generated by grassroots advocacy campaigns. If offices are no longer overwhelmed by such campaigns, their motivation for raising participation barriers will be eliminated and they can begin cultivating constituents rather than brushing them off. Adoption of this new model will require significant changes in the communications process by all stakeholders — ranging from Capitol Hill offices and the vendors of their correspondence management systems to nonprofit organizations and their advocacy vendors. 

For nonprofits, the most significant changes include identifying the organization behind a grassroots campaign, and changing how citizen communications are written. Currently, many organizations encourage citizens to edit a default position on an issue in an effort to make every email communication look unique. Because each "personalized" message must be reviewed manually, this practice makes it more difficult and time consuming for offices to sort, count and respond to citizens. CMF recommends that messages be split into two parts: an organization's position on an issue (which will be used to support efficient correspondence management) and a citizen's added personal comment, if any (which will be used to characterize district impact or obtain anecdotes).     

What can my organization do to help?

Every advocacy organization has an interest in seeing Capitol Hill adopt a new, standardized communications protocol. With CMF recommending changes to a number of current practices, it is critical that the nonprofit sector clearly identifies ones it can accept and ones it would be reluctant to implement.

Convey your comments to your advocacy vendor, or to CMF directly. Compare your organization's online lobbying to the best practice recommendations CMF makes, and adapt your practices if necessary. 

Ask the Expert: What Is Being Done to Improve Advocacy Communications with Congress? | Convio