Meeting Constituents’ Real Needs Means Innovating Constituent Tech

I’m thinking about technology, political culture, and constituent accessibility. What often appears to be a problem of political culture (staff blowing off certain constituents, young hotshot staffers not being able to relate to the challenges of elderly constituents, that kind of thing) might actually be a problem of technology (not having the right tools to organize constituent inquiries or comments at point of reception).

It helps to remember that elected officials are often expected to do much more than the normal list of legislative or executive functions. A Wired story has this anecdote of a military veteran in Massachusetts who misplaced an important piece of mail from the Veteran’s Administration. The letter explained how they could access their benefits, but that information wasn’t packaged well. It occurred at the end of the six-page (!) letter. The veteran contacted the staff of Rep. Seth Moulton, whose Deputy Chief of Staff didn’t just respond by investigating legislative options to address the culture that created such confusion; the staffer actually began by making sure the veteran was able to access their benefits—an administrative or service function that falls well outside the strict boundaries of a legislator’s job.

This was not a constituent complaining about politics, taking a side in a debate, sounding off on some ideological divide. It was a constituent who needed their basic services and benefits. How many contacts might staff receive about accessing services? Who knows? But at a time when the average House member gets 123,000 emails a year (almost triple the number they received on average in 2001), certainly many of these will be about non-legislative/apolitical matters, and this makes it even more clear that institutions have to adapt to new methods of communication in a world where there’s one member of Congress for every 747,184 people.

One of these adaptation needs is an efficient method of separating those who want to weigh in on or engage in deliberation about law and policy from those who may have encountered problems with public services. Non-responsiveness is bad enough in general (and it happens far too often), but it’s especially bad when the inquiry was from someone with a serious unmet need. 

If constituents are sometimes ignored in normal circumstances (and is being on a Congressional staff ever normal?), it’s easy to see how large sections of the constituency can slip through the cracks when public issues get heated—as they have been every single day of the current presidency, for example. In a recent New Yorker article—definitely worth a read—on the effectiveness of phone calls, letters, and emails to elected officials, we find an astute observation about how crises jam up staff phone times, which crowds out less politically charged concerns. “In normal times, then—which is to say, in the times we don’t currently live in—calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.” While the point of the article was to assess effectiveness, I am fixated on the “occupying staff” phrase, because I picture staff sitting on phones all day taking calls from energized people, but unable to process a veteran’s urgent question about benefits.

The same article traces the history of political advocates’ and lobbyists’ manipulation of communication technology to influence political outcomes, beginning with a 1928 campaign by an oil and gas company to get people to make telephone calls in opposition to a gas tax. A century later, “constituent communications account for twenty to thirty per cent of the budget for every congressional office on Capitol Hill.” And the evidence and anecdotes about overworked staff indicates that this is not enough.

Of course, increasing the budget isn’t the answer if you want to remain popular in your district. One potential solution is philanthropic grants, such as those available from the Democracy Fund and its affiliate, Democracy Fund Voice. Intended “to address the disparity between the tools available to Congressional staff and the technological innovations of the digital advocacy industry,” the grants put the tech in the hands of elected officials’ staff, and incentivize further innovation and development. They include apps that can process data in addition to enabling constituent communication, giving those offices “a clearer picture of district sentiment in the aggregate.” And for good measure, they let members of Congress demonstrate their commitment to pushing away from Facebook, so that members won’t fear their personal data being mined on official Congressional pages.

So, in the end, management of technology, political culture, and constituent accessibility hinge on resource questions. Members of Congress can’t be perceived as shirking their duty to help constituents navigate bureaucracies and meet needs, but they’re constantly managing political disputes and crises. We need to find more ways to get appropriate new technology in the hands of their staffers.

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