What It Takes to Make Congress Actually Listen

Last year, a military veteran living in Massachusetts's sixth congressional district tossed aside a piece of mail from the Veterans Administration, without realizing that the information he needed to access his benefits was buried at the end of the six-page letter. Once he realized his mistake, he called the office of Seth Moulton, his representative.

“He said, ‘I realize they sent a letter, and I should read every line, but come on! Six pages and you’re putting this in the last paragraph?’” recalls Andy Flick, Moulton’s deputy chief of staff.

Case workers in Moulton’s office helped the man sort out his problems with the VA. But they also brought the issue to Moulton’s legislative team to see if they could help fix the underlying system that created such a clunky letter. Now, that team is drafting a piece of legislation—tentatively named the Too Long; Didn’t Read Act—which would require government agencies to spell out actionable steps for constituents in a black box on the front page of any piece of mail.

It’s a simple ask. But Flick says it shows what can happen when Congress functions the way it’s supposed to. “If that person had been silently frustrated, then people across the country would continue to be silently frustrated,” says Flick. “Because he called in, members like Seth are able to take measurable steps to fix it.”

Of course, Congress hasn't functioned the way it's supposed to in quite a while. That's one reason why last summer, the non-profit OpenGov Foundation, sent teams to shadow 58 congressional staffers in 20 offices across the country—including Moulton's. Their objective: to study exactly what happens to every call, email, letter, and yes, even fax, Congress receives, and figure out what resonates and why.

Mollie Ruskin led the OpenGov research team.
Esther Kang

Founded by Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and his former staffer Seamus Kraft in 2012, the OpenGov Foundation today published the results of that research. It provides a blueprint not only for congressional offices pushing for more efficient tools to track public input, but for advocacy groups vying to be heard, and for technology companies that could help the two better connect.

"If you're a constituent, and you get an email that says to call Congress and tell them x, y, or z, you're sold on the idea that it’s going to make a difference," Kraft says. "But is it?"

The OpenGov Foundation report, shared exclusively with WIRED, shows that despite how fractured Congress appears, constituent outreach really can work. Just not in the ways you might assume.

Interns in Closets With Lousy Tools

It almost always starts with the interns.

When advocacy groups target thousands of calls or emails at a single member of Congress, it's these low-level and in some cases unpaid interns and junior staffers they inundate. In one particular office the OpenGov Foundation staff observed, those interns sat side-by-side at a shared desk in a walk-in closet that was so small, one of them had to stand up in order to let the other one out. On the wall inside the closet, they'd taped a poster with a drawing of a window on it.

"We're looking at building capacity for Congress," Meag Doherty, one of the researchers, who previously worked as a congressional staffer, says of the tools OpenGov Foundation builds. "Seeing something like interns in a closet reminds me that is needed."

The technology Congress currently uses to process calls and emails doesn't make their job any easier. Congressional offices have the option of using just 10 authorized constituent relationship management systems. One of the most popular, Intranet Quorum, is designed by Lockheed Martin. It was since sold to Leidos. These are software products that, at least in theory, help staffers track constituent outreach from the first phone call to the final response. But in practice, Doherty says, using them is like "entering a time machine," compared to tools from companies like SalesForce that are widely used in the commercial space.

When a call comes in, an intern or low-rung staffer first checks if the caller actually lives in the member's district. Easy enough over the course of a live phone call, but people often forget to include identifying information like their zip code in a voicemail, creating just the first of many possible dead ends. When interns can verify constituents, they have the option of logging each call into the system, tagging the caller's name and the issue they're calling about. But in some offices, the person taking the call merely tallies how many pro and con calls they're receiving on an issue without any identifying information, in which case the constituent never gets a call back.

Letters and faxes get automatically scanned and uploaded into the system, and go through the same verification process. Staffers handle email in much the same way.

Staffers then need to manually group all those communications into batches based on political issues, a process that, according to the report, is "uniformly imprecise, time consuming, and commonly loathed." When the hours-long slog finally ends, slightly more senior staffers called legislative correspondents typically look to see if they have a ready-made response for each question. If not, they work with the broader staff, including the member, to draft a response. Typically that's an email; the very lucky few may get a call or letter back from their representative.


The central irony of this all-consuming process? One recent study by the Congressional Management Foundation found that less than 50 percent of constituents who receive an email response back from a congressional office even open it.

"Both sides of the democratic dialogue are investing millions in this communication system that's clearly a failure," says Brad Fitch, CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. "And that is inadvertently breaking down trust in Congress."

One fix the OpenGov Foundation recommends: that Congress create an internal team of technologists, similar to the United States Digital Service at the White House, which could focus solely on making congressional tech tools more efficient. The non-profit is also piloting its own tool, called Article One, which automatically transcribes voicemails that come into an office and loads them into the constituent management system, eliminating at least a few steps for time-strapped staffers.

Of course, even those improvements won't cure the more systemic ailments within Congress. For one thing, it's understaffed, with underpaid people. Improving constituent communications requires putting more senior staff on the front lines, which requires more funding for those staffers. That's far from the trajectory Congress is currently on. The last time the OpenGov Foundation ran the numbers in 2014, it found that budgets for House members' personal offices had been cut by 21 percent since 2011.

And yet, what money these offices do have currently goes toward inefficient tools. That's partly because Congress is notoriously risk averse. Recently, one Democratic staffer reported, several offices started using MailChimp to send constituent email, before the House Administrative Office, which approves new technology, "slammed on the breaks." Security considerations explain that caution to a point, but that shouldn't stand in the way of all experimentation. This new report recommends Congress set up "model offices," where staffers can test new tools and processes before deploying them more widely.

For any of this to happen, though, members of the House and Senate need to make modernizing their own offices a priority, no different from any of the other issues they champion from the floor of Congress every day. It may not be as flashy as issues like immigration and health care, and yet, says Flick, "The worse our tools are, the less Congress is going to be able to accurately and effectively fight for our constituents."

Better Metrics for Advocacy Groups

Today, online petitions and apps that send messages to Congress in a single click make being heard easier than ever. They've also increasingly overwhelmed an already strained system. Between 2016 and 2017, calls, emails, and letters to representative Moulton’s office alone grew from 500 a month to 3,000 a month—and that’s in an almost entirely Democratic district with a Democratic congressman.

According to Daniel Schuman, a former congressional staffer and policy director for the advocacy group Demand Progress, this ever-increasing volume of feedback is "part of the game we have to play, because the overall system of government doesn't work right."

'If you tell us about something that’s impacting you personally, that’s going to shape the work that we do on that issue.'

Yuri Beckelman, Deputy Chief of Staff

The OpenGov Foundation team found, however, that these campaigns have diminishing returns. "The idea that shutting down our phone lines will win the day is counterproductive, because it takes away that personal connection," says Yuri Beckelman, deputy chief of staff to California representative Mark Takano. The constituents that put the greatest effort into their communication with Congress, he says, are the ones that often get the greatest reward, including personal calls from Takano himself. Those calls tend to stick with him. "We’ve worked on funding for cancer research, based on one of those conversations," says Beckleman. "If you tell us about something that’s impacting you personally, that’s going to shape the work that we do on that issue."

Advocacy groups can't just count the number of identical emails their activists send in a given month, or the number of names on a single petition. To do right by their members, they need new metrics that more accurately reflect the strength of the relationships activists are building. How many in-person meetings have they had with field staff? How many personal stories have they amassed from people whose lives would be impacted by a given piece of legislation? How many minds have they changed?

Congressional offices, meanwhile, need a better way to take the temperature of all of their constituents, even when they're not campaigning and conducting polls. "Someone told us: If this week I get 500 emails on this issue, even if it's a huge uptick and we’ve never had that before, 500 people is not statistically significant for the size of our district," explains Mollie Ruskin, a former designer for the United States Digital Service, who led the OpenGov Foundation research. "It doesn't tell me how the whole district feels."

Tweets Gone Unanswered

Speaking of pitchforks: One of the report's most alarming revelations was that Congress has no formal way to capture what their constituents say on social media—not even when tweets and Facebook posts are directed at them. It doesn’t get logged in the constituent management system. Instead, it’s often either ignored or handled in an ad hoc way, with tech-savvy members of Congress sending staffers screenshots of tweets and Facebook posts if and when something catches their eye.

“That, for me, was mind blowing,” says Hanya Moharram, another member of the research team. “The average American is talking about politics and how they’re responding to it online. It seems like a very missed opportunity for offices.”

And yet, it’s easy to see what a challenge social media poses. On Twitter or Facebook, it's even more difficult to assess who is and isn’t a constituent. Facebook recently rolled out a tool that allows people to mark themselves as residents of a given district, but that's entirely voluntary, and not at all widespread.

Then there’s the problem of assessing the message itself. “Who’s trolling and who’s being sarcastic? They’re such shallow interactions that it’s difficult to understand what it all means,” Moharram says.

For now, the OpenGov Foundation team hopes their research sends a message that angrily tweeting at your representative may not be the most effective use of your time. It's also a reminder to the vendors building these constituent management tools that they desperately need to address social media management.

"This is clearly an unsolved, unsystematic place where people are engaging with their members,” says Ruskin.

Changing Minds Slowly, If At All

Near the end of the research, the OpenGov Foundation's Doherty found herself sitting inside a large, tidy Republican congressional field office, somewhere in the midwest, listening as the calls from members of the public poured in. She sat in the cubicle of a junior staffer, on the line with a constituent who wanted to voice support for the Affordable Care Act. The staffer was polite enough, insisting she’d pass the message on to the congressman. Once she hung up the phone, though, she turned around to Doherty. “My boss voted 66 times to repeal Obamacare," the staffer said. "He’s not going to change his mind now, no matter what this constituent wants.”

“I wish I had a video camera to see the body language,” Doherty remembers. “It was a total disregard.”

'Maybe you can't get them to switch from no to yes, but you can get them to not say anything.'

Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress

It was a blunt admission, but not altogether surprising. This golden age of activism hinges on the idea that a flood of calls, emails, texts, and letters could actually change an elected official's mind. But when it comes to issues like healthcare, tax reform, and immigration—the ones that tend to inspire millions of people to pick up the phone, to march, to act—a member of Congress rarely changes his or her mind completely. That's particularly true when doing so would mean rebelling against the party.

In a lot of ways, having elected leaders who aren't subject to the whims of the most vocal masses makes good sense for democracy. The Resistance may want far-right conservatives like Tom Cotton to listen to them today, but they likely wouldn't have appreciated Bernie Sanders siding with Obamacare-protesting Tea Partiers.

Which raises a crucial question: Can any one citizen really make a difference? The impact that one veteran in Massachusetts had on representative Moulton shows that it's possible—but also that those wins may prove more modest than activists would hope. According to Fitch, of the Congressional Management Foundation, the vast majority of decisions that members of Congress make have little to do with their electoral prospects or their long term reputation, but they can still make a massive difference in people's lives.

"Whether we increase federal funding for research on Alzheimer's won’t impact whether you win or lose an election; neither will how ponds are regulated on farms less than five acres," says Fitch. "That's where citizens can have the most impact."

Constituent communications can also sometimes play a role even on high-profile issues. "If they're on the bubble you might be able to move them. Is their election close? You can probably move them," says Schuman of Demand Progress. "Maybe you can't get them to switch from no to yes, but you can get them to not say anything."

Still, almost all of the people the OpenGov Foundation interviewed acknowledged that it's nearly impossible to change a member's mind overnight. Those changes take more than a spike in activism. They take consistent input over the course of years. That type of halting progress might seem to run counter to the non-profit's mission, but in fact, it is central to it.

Guaranteeing a robust, two-way conversation between Congress and the public requires having more efficient systems in place for managing that conversation. But it also requires that the public keeps that conversation going for the long haul—even when it feels like no one's listening.

Our (Not Quite) Modernized Government

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