Rewiring the System


How To Communicate With Your Elected Officals

Posted in Uncategorized by rewiringangel on October 15, 2009
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Why is writing a letter something to think about?  How did we get to have essentially no input or contact unless we are contributors of larger amounts of money? Your letter is meaningless and here is the helpful government site to let you know why.  A phone call is better than any other communication! Be short and right to the point.  If you have an interest in getting universal one payer health care like the other industrial nations have then it is time to get to the phone: NOW!

When the Congress was created, communication was not as easy as it is today. Technology has been a major force behind increasing citizen engagement with civics. Over the last decade or so, the number of letters to Congress has nearly quadrupled, with more than 200 million emails now received by Congress each year (that’s around one email per adult!). Unfortunately, Congress has kept staff sizes largely unchanged since the 1980s (on average a staff of 15 per representative and 34 per senator), and as a result letters very rarely receive any significant attention, and as the number of letters goes up, the impact of any one letter necessarily goes down. So should you write or phone your rep.?

First take a moment to consider the onslaught of communication Members of Congress are receiving. You should respect your Member’s limited staff time, and for that matter your fellow constituents’ right to have your Member’s staff concentrate on legislating, rather than tirelessly reading letters, by communicating only well-thought-out messages. Certainly don’t communicate with the intent to overload your Member’s staff. That isn’t fair to anyone.

Does writing a letter make a difference?

But is your message going to have any effect? Writing in a form letter provided to you by an advocacy group will probably have very little effect. Especially if it is a fax. Faxes are quickly discarded. Members’ staffs notice when they receive hundreds of the same letter, and they don’t count these letters as important as personalized messages. On the other hand, while the majority of Congressional staff say they believe, according to a CMF survey, that personalized letters can impact their boss’s decision making, it is impossible to know if there is any truth to this.

In the personal experience of GovTrack’s creator, what Congressional staff say is that two things happen with letters and other communications. First, Representatives and Senators use the information essentially like a poll: They tally up responses and use the totals to guide their decision making. Second, on rare occasions they use some letters as case studies in speeches on the floor, to support their point with a little personal touch. A letter turning into a case study is especially rare, especially in terms of the volume of communications received, which means by and large the actual personal content of messages (beyond what can be tallied) is pretty much unread. Moreover, your personal communication is worthless in isolation. As part of a movement, when the tally will add up to something, it might have an impact. I’m sure there are some representatives that take tallies seriously, but I don’t know how many. No House staffer says they actually read the letters carefully: They are frank that they don’t have the resources to do it. (Of course, they can vote on their own resource levels, so there is some mystery there.)

What to include in a letter and how to send it

But if you are going to write, how do you do it? Visit your representative’s website and look for a “Contact” page. You’ll always find either an email address or, more commonly, a form to fill out. Congressional staffers say the following things are important to making your message influential: including your name, address, and ZIP code so the staff can verify you are a constituent of the Member of Congress, referencing specific legislation rather than a general issue by bill number and title, talking about the impact of the bill on the district or state, and your own reason for supporting or opposing the bill. While 90 percent of Congressional staff thought these items were helpful, less than 68 percent of staff thought personal stories were helpful. One well-respected organization recommends being: personalized, short, targeted, and informative.

If you intend to write a letter, we wish you good luck! But, you might consider what forms of communication might better serve the needs of your fellow constituents. That is, if letter writing doesn’t really work all that well, what else might? Does your representative come to your district for town hall meetings? Does he do online chats? Is his local office responsive to communication? Check out these alternatives and get others on board with broadening the landscape of constituent communication.

(Various unsourced facts above are from the Congressional Management Foundation’s Communicating with Congress report.)

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