Quick questions, slow answers
- By William Matthews
- Mar 25, 2001
An estimated 6.5 million e-mail messages will arrive in congressional offices this month. Next month, the number will be 7.5 million.
E-mail is rapidly becoming the preferred method of contacting members of the House and Senate. Unfortunately, it's not a method most congressional staffs are adept at handling.
About 90 percent of congressional offices, for example, don't reply to e-mail messages with e-mail responses. Instead, they print responses on paper and send them via regular mail.
Constituents who send e-mail "expect responses within a few hours, but will settle for a response in a few days' time. A paper reply received weeks later" is unsatisfactory, according to a report from the Congress Online Project, which is studying how Congress can better use the Internet.
Half of congressional offices received automated e-mail sorting systems as part of their office software packages, but 90 percent do not use them. Failure to use available technology is leading to an e-mail crisis, writes Kathy Goldschmidt, principal author of the report "E-mail Overload in Congress."
Lawmakers' e-mail volume has jumped from 20 million messages in 1998 to 80 million in 2000. When controversy erupts over issues, such as the impeachment of President Clinton or the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, e-mail pours into some offices at a rate of thousands per day.
Much of the correspondence comes from interest groups and lobbying organizations that inundate congressional offices with the electronic equivalent of junk mail. For most offices, the only way to sort the junk from constituent mail is to have staff members look at each message — an all but impossible task when volume soars.
"Rather than enhancing democracy, e-mail has heightened tensions and public disgruntlement with Congress," Goldschmidt wrote. But it need not be so. In Rep. Zach Wamp's office, staff members prefer e-mail to its paper counterpart.
"It costs less, it is more efficient, and it is more effective," said Helen Hardin, chief of staff to Wamp (R-Tenn.). "It takes five to seven days to send a letter" to constituents back in Chattanooga or Oak Ridge, she said. "E-mail is instantaneous."
When the paper mail arrives, a staff member must open it manually, sort it and deliver it to other members. With e-mail, messages can be forwarded to the appropriate member — or to several simultaneously — by pressing a button.
"It's so much better. I'm still astounded that more offices do not want to use it," Hardin said.
To separate constituent mail from junk, Wamp directs writers to a form on his Web page where correspondents enter their names, addresses, phone numbers and other information. That information makes it easy to sort.
For Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), managing e-mail in volume is quite different.
Last summer Leahy was the senior Democrat presiding over a Judiciary Committee hearing on Napster and copyright violations. Following appearances by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, former Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn and others, Leahy received 50,000 e-mail messages in a week, said spokesman David Carle.
The senator's staff used a Microsoft Corp. Exchange e-mail system to automatically send each e-mail correspondent a statement from Leahy on Napster and copyrights.
Ordinarily, Leahy asks correspondents to include their addresses with the e-mail messages, which enables his staff to sort Vermont e-mail messages from out-of-state messages. Generally, Leahy does not respond to e-mail messages from outside Vermont, Carle said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents a big chunk of California's Silicon Valley, receives 61 percent of her mail as e-mail and responds by e-mail. But her staff remains wary of automated e-mail sorting and response systems, said chief of staff John Flannery.
Lofgren wants to provide "tailored responses" to e-mail messages from constituents, so "I don't know if I would ever feel comfortable about automating the responses," Flannery said. Nor is he confident that automated sorting systems can accurately determine which staff member should handle which piece of e-mail, because many messages cover several subjects. Thus e-mail, like paper mail, is sorted by a staff member.
So far, the e-mail volume has remained manageable but is sure to grow, Goldschmidt said. "Rather than [replace] postal mail, as many had expected, e-mail is generating a whole new source of work," the Congress Online Project report stated.
Some House offices now receive as many as 8,000 e-mail messages per month. Senate offices receive up to 55,000. In those offices, "the burdens on staff are viewed as unmanageable," according to the report.
The answer, the report contends, is computer-based correspondence management systems. "By automating, you will relieve a growing burden on staff and improve your responsiveness to your constituents," the report stated.
Responding to e-mail with e-mail saves time, postage, paper and printing costs, according to the project. It also creates the opportunity to target constituents with future updates on issues in which they are interested. Besides generating goodwill, such a proactive approach could pre-empt some future e-mail messages, the report suggested.
But convincing House and Senate members may not be easy.
It will require them to rethink communications practices, office budgeting and hiring practices, according to the report. Some offices will have to hire more knowledgeable systems administrators; others may have to spend $50,000 or more to buy higher capacity servers and better computers.