Managing constituent correspondence: Implications for congressional learning and citizen advocacy

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By Claire Abernathy

Constituents contact their elected officials in Washington to express their views on policy, and these incoming contacts represent a potentially useful resource for congressional offices to rely on in their efforts to discern and respond to the policy preferences and priorities of their district residents. Indeed, constituent contacts are found to inform Representatives’ views of their districts and their legislative behavior.

However, congressional office capacity to use constituents’ letters, emails, phone calls, faxes, and social media messages to understand constituent opinion depends on the systems that offices institute to organize this incoming correspondence. These internal organizational choices can facilitate, or hinder, offices’ efforts to incorporate the opinion constituents convey in correspondence into their representatives’ legislative actions.

The importance of these organizational practices has only grown as Capitol Hill has experienced a sharp increase in constituent contacts. Though constituent communications to Congress increased substantially—and steadily—following the adoption of email in congressional offices, recently citizens have reached out to their Representatives and Senators at such high rates that the phone lines in Congress have been unable to handle the volume. This surge in incoming correspondence has made the task of organizing these contacts an increasingly demanding one for congressional offices, with offices reporting they have had to allocate more of their finite staff resources to constituent correspondence.

Despite the value of these contacts as an information resource for congressional staff, and the increasing time and effort that offices are dedicating to managing incoming contacts, there has been minimal attention in political science to the internal office practices for handling correspondence from constituents. How are constituents’ letters, emails, phone calls, faxes and social media contacts received and managed by congressional offices? What do these organizational practices indicate about the capacity of offices to use correspondence as an informational resource to understand and react to constituent opinion?

To answer these questions, I fielded a survey and conducted interviews with congressional staff in 107 House offices in 2013 and 2014. Through these surveys and interviews, I collected information about the systems that offices develop to manage constituent correspondence—the resulting data represents the first systematic dataset of internal office practices for receiving and organizing contacts from district residents.

“There are 435 different ways it’s done”

Like most other aspects of internal office operations, congressional offices are given the freedom to organize their contact management systems as they see fit—the result, as succinctly stated by a Representative during an interview: “there are 435 different ways it’s done.” The survey data confirm the variety of approaches that offices take to managing correspondence, in particular to the tasks of cataloging contacts and sharing the information from contacts within the office.

What do congressional offices record?

Offices maintain databases of incoming contacts, using correspondence management software that automates some of the work involved in recording and organizing contacts. These systems automatically log all emails that the office receives, and many offices have postal mail automatically cataloged as well, with electronic scans of postal mail delivered into their correspondence systems. Likely due to this ease of data entry, the vast majority of congressional offices keep records of all incoming letters and emails—95% of offices in the sample recorded all letters and emails received.

For other forms of communication, however, including phone calls, faxes and social media contacts, congressional staff must manually enter information into the system—when it comes to these other forms of communication, there is much less uniformity in record-keeping practices across offices. Of offices surveyed, 79% record phone call contacts, 65% record personalized faxes and 56% record form faxes. Remarkably few offices incorporate contacts that come through popular social media websites into their contact records--only 9% of offices enter Facebook messages into their correspondence databases and only 6% of offices record messages received on Twitter.

In recording incoming contacts, there is a high priority placed across all offices on recording constituents’ contact information—this allows staff to identify the contactor as a district resident and facilitates the office’s response and any future contacts with the constituent. Offices also track information about the issues constituents include in their contacts, but it is less common for offices to log the positions that constituents are advocating for—89% of offices use issue tags to identify the issue areas the contact relates to, but only 65% of offices include a note on the position that a constituent takes on the issue in their contact records.

How is information from correspondence shared within congressional offices?

In most offices, Legislative Correspondents, Staff Assistants and Interns are responsible for logging incoming contacts into their office correspondence database. This large amount of information about constituents, their preferences and their priorities, however, needs to be shared with other staffers to be a useful resource that can inform the legislative work of the office. Most offices circulate regular mail reports to keep other staff informed of what they are hearing in incoming correspondence. However, offices vary substantially in the content that is included in these reports.

On their mail reports, offices commonly include information that captures the responsiveness of office staff to constituent contacts, including the total volume of incoming correspondence (71.4% of offices), outgoing correspondence (53.6% of offices), a count of pending correspondence that is still awaiting a response from the office (28.6% of offices), and a status update on the pending responses in progress (20.2% of offices).

But not all offices share information about the issues that constituents are reaching out about in their contacts. 34% of offices provide a comprehensive account of constituent contacts in their mail reports, listing every issue that emerged in constituent correspondence in the period covered by the report. But most offices provide less information about the issue content of correspondence, either listing only the “top” incoming issues (49% of offices), where volume of contacts about an issue dictates its status as a top issue, or including nothing about issue content at all (17% of offices). And, importantly, most offices appear to exclude specific information about issue positions taken by constituents on their mail reports--only 9 offices in the sample specified that they list the breakdown of the pro-/con- stances that constituents have taken on an issue in their mail report.

Correspondence practices limit the utility of constituent contacts as an information resource in many offices

This first systematic data on correspondence management reveals different approaches to managing constituent correspondence across offices. And some of these different practices suggest that not all offices are well-positioned to use correspondence as a resource to understand and react to constituent views.

  • Not all offices record every contact that they receive from their constituents, with many offices choosing to exclude phone calls or faxes or social media contacts from their correspondence databases. Without recording every contact, offices are failing to capture information about constituent opinion. The level of detail contained in each contact record varies, with more than a third of offices omitting information about constituents’ policy positions. Contact records that exclude information about the positions that constituents are advocating for may limit the office’s ability to develop an accurate sense of district opinion. In offices with these incomplete record-keeping practices, correspondence would be a less useful tool for discerning and responding to constituent opinion in legislative behavior.

  • For most offices, the knowledge about constituent opinion that is contained in the correspondence database is not conveyed effectively to others in the office. Though the large majority of offices circulate regular mail reports that provide an overview of recent correspondence trends, the mail reports assembled in most offices provide only a partial picture of what incoming correspondence looks like, listing only the top issues and/or omitting information about constituent policy positions. As a result, mail reports may provide information about the top issue priorities of constituents but typically they do not provide any sense of where constituents actually stand on these priority issues or capture the breadth of issues that constituents care about. Without offering more information about the status of constituent opinion in mail reports shared within the office, the ability for the office to use correspondence to determine constituent policy preferences and priorities is undermined.

These findings also have implications for citizens as they contact their members of Congress. In corresponding with their Representatives and Senators, constituents are unaware of how their phone call, email, letter, fax, or social media contact will be processed within the office. Recently, former congressional staffers, drawing on their anecdotal experience working in congressional offices, have created guides to help interested constituents more effectively contact their elected officials. But with each office free to set up their internal organization practices for managing correspondence as they see fit, the general guidance offered in these resources may not apply in every congressional office.

Citizen advocacy and congressional learning, then, can both be undermined by ineffective or incomplete systems for managing constituent correspondence—and this first systematic study of how congressional offices process incoming contacts from district residents indicates that many offices operate with these ineffective or incomplete systems.

Claire Abernathy is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stockton University. This research is also featured in a forthcoming article in Congress & the Presidency, "Understanding and Responding to Constituent Opinion on Capitol Hill."