Frustrated with Congress? Write Better Emails

From the Congressional Management Foundation blog:

This summer, Rasmussen Reports conducted a public opinion survey that found that only 21% of voters feel that most members of Congress care what their constituents think. There’s plenty of blame to go around as to the cause for voters’ cynicism. Highly polarized politics, partisan rhetoric, the media, and shows like House of Cards serve to reinforce the misperception that power in Congress is limited to just a few Members in leadership positions and constituents don’t matter.

The Advocacy Leaders Network workshop on November 17 considered another contributor – Bad writing!

While CMF research shows that Members of Congress universally agree that “keeping in touch with constituents” is a very important aspect of their job, our research also shows that citizen advocates commonly do not provide the information Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents.

What Members of Congress Look for From Constituents

– Specific requests
– Constituents’ reasoning for their requests
– Information about how issues impact the district
– Personal stories that illustrate how issues effect constituents

Why Constituents Infrequently Provide This information

Form emails are the most common form of constituent engagement. Unfortunately, the people behind email campaigns rarely encourage (and sometimes don’t allow) their citizen advocates to personalize their emails to Congress. Therefore, it’s no surprise that CMF research finds that form email is one of the least influential advocacy activities. An unintended side effect can be both congressional and constituent dissatisfaction in their democratic discourse.

Think about the following typical scenario. Congress is considering taking an action of concern to an advocacy organization. The organization’s advocacy team posts an alert to its legislative action center and pushes it out to its network of citizen advocates, urging them to “make their voice heard.” Many citizen advocates take action by emailing their Members of Congress. When the campaign concludes, the advocacy team generates a report from the action center’s backend and analyzes the alert’s performance – open rates, click throughs, and the all-important number of letters sent.

Let’s say the alert performs well. The advocacy team does a collective high-five and pops the champagne thinking that its campaign had the desired effect – influenced decisions – but it did not.

Although the campaign is over for the people behind the email campaign, it’s just begun from the congressional perspective. In each congressional office, there sits a Legislative Correspondent. This is the person responsible for reading, processing, and responding to all the constituent mail their office receives. The vast majority of the emails they process are identical form emails. The letters received on various issues are tallied, but have minimal influence on decisions. Why? Because they commonly fail to communicate constituents’ reasoning, how the issue impacts the district, or relevant personal stories.

To conclude the cycle started by the advocacy team, Legislative Correspondents use technology that allows them to respond to batches of form emails. The few constituents who bother to open responses are smart enough to recognize an impersonal and generic email when they see one. And they wonder whether their engagement makes a difference? Maybe Rasmussen Reports contacts 10 of them to ask whether they agree that their Member of Congress cares what they think. Eight (8) say, “Oh, Hell no!”

As noted earlier, emails are the most common form of constituent engagement. This is likely because they are easy – easy for the constituent to send, and easy for advocacy managers to access metrics like the number of letters sent. But becoming influential doesn’t come easy. It takes relationships!

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