The Internet has spawned an explosion of electronic messages and forever changed how citizens and Members of Congress interact, according to a new report, Communicating with Congress: Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill, produced by the Congressional Management Foundation. The report suggests that “the unprecedented capabilities of the Internet have brought about unprecedented challenges and mounting frustration for both sides.”
Most staffers (87 percent) thought email and the Internet have made it easier for constituents to become involved in public policy. And a majority of staff (57 percent) felt email and the Internet have made Senators and Representatives more accountable to their constituents. Less than half (41 percent) thought email and the Internet have increased citizens’ understanding of what goes on in Washington.
Most of the staff surveyed said constituent visits to the Washington office (97 percent) and to the district/state office (94 percent) have “some” or “a lot” of influence on an undecided Member, more than any other influence group or strategy. When asked about strategies directed to their offices back home, staffers said questions at town hall meetings (87 percent) and letters to the editor (80 percent) have “some” or “a lot” of influence.
There is virtually no distinction by the congressional staff surveyed between email and postal mail. They view them as equally influential to an undecided Member. Nearly identical percentages of staffers said postal mail (90 percent) and email (88 percent) would influence an undecided Member of Congress.
Congressional staffers have conflicting views and attitudes about the value of grassroots advocacy campaigns. More than one-third of congressional staff (35 percent) agreed that advocacy campaigns are good for democracy (25 percent disagreed). Most staff (90 percent) agreed—and more than 60 percent strongly agreed—that responding to constituent communications is a high priority in their offices. But, more than half of the staffers surveyed (53 percent) agreed that most advocacy campaigns of identical form messages are sent without constituents’ knowledge or approval.
Congressional offices are integrating social media tools into their operations, both to gain an understanding of constituents’ opinions and to communicate information about the Member’s views. Nearly two-thirds of staff surveyed (64 percent) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) think it is important for communicating their Member’s views