In February, the Open Gov Foundation, an “apolitical nonprofit dedicated to serving those who serve the people in America’s legislatures,” released a report called “From Voicemails to Votes,” which examines the systems, tools and constraints on how Congress engages with constituent input.
This report sheds light on concerns of the grassroots advocacy community and citizen activists around the country: “Is my voice being heard?” Much like anything involving government, the answer is complicated much like the process of registering a genuine constituent opinion irrespective of the communications medium. Whether you call, email, tweet, fax or leverage any other communication tool to contact a legislator, there are barriers and institutional constraints and opportunities for improvement and innovation that the report identifies in Congress.
There is a lot of room for innovation in constituent intake and the Open Gov Foundation has provided a blueprint with actionable steps that can be taken to improving the process of redressing government for grievances. Coupling this with research from organizations like the Congressional Management Foundation, lawmakers have a better understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats on constituent intake. This information is also useful to the advocacy community.
Outside of Congress and their staff exists a growing apparatus of advocacy technology vendors, consultants and in-house grassroots and communications professionals that work to represent organizations and pump messages into Congress on issues affecting their constituencies. The advocacy technology community is dependent on Congress for an honest and open flow of communication from constituents and to constituents as a principle of modern American democratic principles.
Grassroots professionals serve the role as both civics teachers and cheerleaders for their clients or membership in getting them to call, email, tweet, fax or leverage any other communication tool to contact a legislator. Impediments to this process and mounting barriers affect public confidence in the process and can derail the efforts to give citizens a voice in the public policy process.
Uniformity does not exist from office to office on how they process constituent communication and some congressional offices are now shutting their doors to constituent messages sent by third-party technology software companies. Citizen advocates that go to the website of their association or nonprofit cause that they believe in and send a message to a lawmaker can face a bounce back from certain offices not accepting the message as genuine unless they resubmit through the offices dedicated website. If proliferated this possesses a serious threat to the operations of grassroots advocacy from both the vendor and practitioner perspective.
Improving constituent communications is a two-way street. Advocacy professionals and vendors bear the responsibility (and the burden) over the constituent communications process. It is important for advocacy professionals to become informed on the workings and technical details involved in sending and receiving messages. The Open Gov Foundation report is a good start.
Ultimately, we should not be satisfied with setting up an action alert and neglecting further inquiry into whether or not the message portals are open. Aside from being an informed and an active monitor, grassroots professionals should push vendors for transparency and innovation. The burden of innovation does not only rest with Congress and their staff. Advocacy technology vendors have a vested financial stake in constituent communications and should invest in responsible research and product development and come up with self-policing protocols to ensure genuine messages are being sent and “astroturf” or fake messages are being rejected.
Vendors working in coordination with in-house grassroots professionals and relevant think tanks can urge structural improvements to Communicating with Congress, which are guidelines that “is a service specifically designed to provide advocacy vendors with an efficient means to deliver mass communications to members of the House of Representatives.” These guidelines and the Level of Service Standardswere adopted in June 2013 and need an updated version that applies to other forms of constituent communications such as social media.
Advocacy technology and the constituent communications process need a renaissance of the process in Congress and the advocacy community and move towards standards operating procedures and uniformity. The burden is shared, the resources limited, the task is daunting, but action is essential as a core tenant of American democratic principles is at stake. We should never doubt that citizens voices are being heard.
Joshua Habursky is director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University.