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Constituent e-mail and form letters flood Capitol Hill lawmakers

A flood of constituent e-mail, including a massive amount of electronic form letters, has overwhelmed members of Congress in the past decade, according to a report the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) released last week.

"Congressional staff are frustrated by the increasing quantity and decreasing quality of constituent communications, and they are inclined to mistrust grass-roots communications and the organizations that generate them," states the report, "Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy."

Staff members feel they are doing more work to respond to less substantive messages, which leaves them with little time to work on legislation, which is what brought most of them to Congress in the first place, the report adds.

Database-generated form letters are part of the reason lawmakers received four times more correspondence in 2004 than in 1995, according to the study.

Kathy Goldschmidt, CMF director of technology services and an author of the report, said staffers are skeptical of all form letters because they don't know the source and can't gauge the constituent's true feelings.

Those sentiments, among others, are outlined in the survey of congressional staffers that CMF conducted between January 2004 and May.

The report states that the Internet is generally good for public discourse, but advocacy groups and lawmakers need to agree on acceptable electronic letters and responses.

E-democracy experts say lawmakers should think more about the way they collaborate online with the citizens who elect them.

"They need to increase the political priority they place on technology to help them listen to citizens, not just communicate to citizens," said Steven Clift, editor of the Democracies Online e-mail discussion list.

Perhaps not all letters need responses, he said, adding that some people might only want lawmakers to acknowledge that they received their messages.

Technology would allow constituents to set preferences, which would reduce the time and money lawmakers' staff spend replying to every e-mail message, Clift added. Every citizen should receive a confirmation number and carbon copy of each message as proof the message was delivered, he said.

"Building tools to enhance e-mail responsiveness is the No. 1 challenge of elected officials in all governments around the world…and presents an opportunity for open-source collaboration among the governments," Clift said.

Lawmakers often label e-mail advocacy campaigns as spam, Goldschmidt said.

The report could not quantify the frequency of mass e-mail messages. A second report will survey citizens and grass-roots organizers to learn more about their e-mail messages and how they are directed to members of Congress.

"It's not clear whether they're generated from lists without constituents' knowledge or approval," Goldschmidt said, adding that sometimes organizers send multiple e-mail messages using their members' e-mail addresses without consent.

The advocacy groups have not learned what is most effective for their causes, and Congress has not learned how to respond correctly, she said.

One of the report's more striking findings is that the majority of lawmakers respond to e-mail with postal letters. Only 17 percent of House offices and 38 percent of Senate offices answer all incoming e-mail via e-mail.

"That can't stand for many more years," Clift said. "That's totally disconnected from how citizens use the Internet. If their elected officials are unwilling to exchange an e-mail, they're 20th century."

CMF officials will release formal recommendations in a third report after interviewing citizens. Preliminary implications are that lawmakers should reply to e-mail via e-mail, respond more quickly to all messages and consider new correspondence technologies, such as online surveys, Really Simple Syndication feeds and Web logs.

No legislation governs how lawmakers should respond to constituents, and all lawmakers must purchase their own constituent correspondence management systems, said officials from the House and the Senate. Both congressional bodies are examining new technologies.

As members of Congress work on wrestling the e-mail monster to the ground, "they really have a lot of latitude and autonomy in which technologies they use," said J. Greg Hanson, the Senate's chief information officer.

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