Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Handwritten Letters, E-mails and Phone Calls, Oh My!

The social media revolution is making a difference in the way Bread for the World advocates, members of a congregation and anti-hunger advocates communicate with their member of Congress.  First, let me point out that hand-written letters remain an effective way to communicate with your member of the House or Senate.  But they are not the only means.  E-mails are okay, as long as they are personalized and provide evidence that you are a constituent (your postal mailing address!) 

A lot, of course, depends on what priorities the office of your elected representative has placed on social media.  So how do you know what the staff members of each congressional office are thinking?  First, you have to ask the staffs of each office how much weight they put on different forms of communication with constituents.  

Also, there some insiders who can offer valuable information, such as blogger Matt Glassman, who has worked as an Analyst on  theCongress for the Congressional Research Service  (Library of Congress).  In  a post entitled On Writing Your Congressman, Mr. Glassman offers a very complete view of the workings of a congressional office.  

The reality is that number of e-mails is exploding, while the number of letters are remaining constant or falling slightly, as evidenced by this graph that Mr. Glassman posted: in his blog

Click on image to enlarge
Here's what he says about the graph:
If you don’t work in politics, this graph is probably pretty striking. If you do, it’s probably either familiar or terrifying, or both. Members of Congress interact with constituents in a variety of ways: in person, both in their districts and in Washington; over the phone when people call their offices; and through the mailing of letters. We can’t say for sure how many people a Member meets in person or how many phone calls come to the Hill each day. But I think it’s safe to say that, traditionally, neither of those forms of communication ate up nearly as much time as the mail did in a congressional office. The mail comes three times a day in Congress, and it’s unrelenting.
Here's what he says about letters:
With postal mail, it was always easy to know if you were being written to by a constituent or by someone from outside your district. The rule of thumb for sorting such mail is typically something like this: if it’s a constituent or interest group from our district, put it in the pile for things that we will promptly respond to; if it’s a constituent from outside our district, put it in another pile for things that we will promptly deliver to the correct office; if it’s a interest group from outside our district, look through it quickly and see if it’s personal or a form letter / mass spamming. If it’s the former, consider responding. If it’s the latter, definitely trash it.
And here's his take on the dilemma that congressional staffers face regarding e-mails:
The problem with that you can’t tell if the sender is from the district or not. And there are quite obvious incentives to not exclude anyone who might be a constituent. And so the incoming email has a tendency to nationalize the constituent communications techniques used in most Member offices; there’s just isn’t a sorting algorithm that  lets you separate your constituents from other citizens.*** Which means that the information context Members are facing in their offices is much more national in scope, even after they’ve tried to filter it. This has consequences. For one, it forces a complete rethinking of an office communications strategy. But it also distorts one’s perspective of district opinion, and tends to orient Members toward national public policy; people from outside the district are much more likely to communicate about policy issues than distributive politics such as grants or earmarks.
I recommend that  you read his entire piece, which contains great insights about the inner workings of a congressional office.  Part 1 and Part 2

And to be on the safe side, keep on sending those hand-written letters so that you don't face the risk of being "filtered out."  But by all means, do not discard e-mail as an option for communicating with your elected representative about the Offering of Letters.  And e-mails are and will continue to be a very useful took (along with phone calls) when communication must be made in a timely manner (as in action alerts).

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