Congress improves e-mail management

Members of Congress have made strides toward handling the endless stream of e-mail messages that clogs their area 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, Web-based forms and other best practices, an Aug. 7 special report by the Congress Online Project concluded. 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 was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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

Consider the following statistics: 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.

"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 better management: More offices are answering e-mail with e-mail, turning off public e-mail addresses in lieu of Web-based forms and using filters to weed out spam.

"They've made the critical realization that the Internet matters," said Rob Courtney, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., group. "We're not all the way there yet, but I think there's been a general upward trend."

Private-sector and grass-roots communities have become more sophisticated, too, helping constituents better tailor messages to individual members instead of the entire political pool.

"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 [messages are] here to stay, and they're learning to manage it."

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

The Senate, however, expects its e-mail volume to increase 24 percent, 2 percent more than it did last year.

Experts attribute the increase to the Senate's upgrade of its e-mail system. The upper chamber also has been slower to adopt Web-based forms than the House and probably gets more spam, Hansan said.

Neither side has reached total electronic enlightenment, however. Seventy-five percent of House members still respond to e-mails with postal letters, according to Fitch.

"I know that it creates some management issues up on their side, and we're just thankful that they're dealing with it," Hansan said. "We realize it's not going away. People want to communicate electronically."

On a typical day in 2001, House offices received 234,245 messages, with Senate ones getting 88,009. And it's ever-growing.

"Out of sheer necessity, they have to [deal with] it," Fitch said. "They're realizing they have to do more with less, and information technologies are the solution. You have a real potential here to achieve the promise of the Internet — bringing democracy to citizens."

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Sizing up the e-mail overload

Congress is experiencing an e-mail overload. On a typical day in 2001, the House offices received 234,245 messages, and the Senate received 88,009 messages. In 2000, Congress received 80 million e-mail messages from constituents, and in 2001 received 117 million. The projected 2002 total is 127 million e-mail messages.

There are some signs of improvement, however:

* There are 66 senators and 226 House members using Web-based forms instead of public e-mail addresses.

* About 25 percent of House offices are now responding to e-mail messages with e-mail, up 10 percent from last year.

* The growth rate in e-mail messages to the House has slowed from an increase of 78 percent in 2001 to an estimated growth of 2.5 percent this year.

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