Congress 'taming e-mail monster'

Members of Congress have made strides toward handling the stream of e-mail messages that clogs their portion of cyberspace, according to a new study.

Although the volume remains at staggering levels — the House and Senate received 117 million inbound messages in 2001 — both sides are taking advantage of information technology solutions, such as filters and Web-based forms, an Aug. 7 special report by the Congress Online Project found (www.congressonlineproject.org). Also, the growth rate of e-mail reaching the House has slowed this year.

"Congress is becoming more competent at taming the e-mail monster," said Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, the Congress Online Project's parent organization.

The report updates a study released in March 2001 that described how members were "literally drowning in a sea of email," Fitch said. Now they seem to have swum to the surface — just in time to deal with an ever-growing demand.

Consider the following: Last year, 13 million Americans participated in an online lobbying campaign, 23 million sent comments to public officials about policy choices, and 68 million visited a government Web site, according to an April 2002 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

On a typical day in 2001, House offices received 234,245 messages, Senate 88,009.

"More people are going online," Fitch said. "It's just that Congress is getting better at handling those communications."

A number of measures are contributing to this rosier picture. More offices are answering e-mail with e-mail, replacing their public e-mail addresses with Web-based forms, and using filters to weed out spam.

Further reducing the overload, private-sector and grassroots communities have become more sophisticated and better at helping constituents tailor messages to individual members instead of the entire institution.

"Groups are getting smarter about how to e-mail Congress," said Bob Hansan, president and chief executive officer of Capitol Advantage, which creates online tools for special-interest groups. And "Capitol Hill is finally getting the message that electronic [messaging] is here to stay and they're learning to manage it."

The payoffs have been great. The House experienced a "surprising" drop in the rate of e-mail growth during the past six months, according to the study. The number of inbound messages is projected to increase by 2.5 percent this year, in contrast with a 78 percent surge in 2001.

The Senate, however, is not expected to see a similar respite. Its e-mail volume is estimated to go up 24 percent, 2 percent more than it did last year.

Experts attribute this to it being a transition time for the Senate, which is upgrading its e-mail system. It also has been slower to adopt Web-based forms than the House and probably gets more spam, Hansan said.

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