Jun 10, 2019

Improving Constituent Engagement: Three Takeaways from the Modernization Committee’s Fifth Hearing

Each year, 25-35 million messages are sent to the House of Representatives. As constituent engagement with Congress increases, outdated technology, mass email campaigns often make it difficult for these important communications to have a real impact on the governing process.  

With civic engagement at the core of our representative democracy, how can we ensure that the public is not only able to easily communicate to their member of Congress but meaningfully engage with legislation? Innovation is key. The problem? Congress’s outdated and often-limited technological platforms aren’t equipped to handle 21st century communications opportunitiesYet, innovative communications technology that easily allows constituents to engage would not only increase public faith in Congress, it would also create a more robust legislative process. 

How can we get there? Last week, the Modernization Committee held a hearing on how to improve constituent engagement where experts shared their ideas on creating modern communications for Congress. Witnesses included the Congressional Management Foundation’s (CMF) Brad Fitch; Dr. Michael Neblo, a professor at The Ohio State University; and Marci Harris, a former congressional staffer and founder of a new congressional communication platform, POPVox. Here are the three key takeaways on how Congress can modernize its communications: 

1. Find New, Innovative Ways of Communicating 

Members’ communication with constituents often involves responding or reacting to mass email campaigns sponsored by national organizations. To spark meaningful dialogue, offices need to identify new ways of communicating. One idea suggested during the hearing is the utilization of online townhalls, which, according to CMF polling, has a higher likelihood of constituent engagement than traditional or phone townhalls.  

Dr. Neblo recommends online townhalls have these five key elements: diverse participation; balanced, factual reading material for participants; single topic focus; a neutral, third-party host; and live member participation. Of the online townhalls he has tested, participants responded that they thought they were beneficial to democracy and made them more likely to listen and become informed about an issue. They also said they were more likely to vote. On the flip side, members gained a more robust understanding of constituent views—rather than mass-market messaging—and saw a 37 percent increase in constituent trust.  

Witnesses also mentioned that Congress can learn a lot from other countries, like Ireland and Taiwan, who are already utilizing innovative technology to communicate with citizens. For example, Ireland has established a citizens’ assembly that convenes a random sample of citizens to provide feedback on pending issues and engage with officials. Meanwhile, Taiwan has a dedicated Minister of Information Technology and Constituent Communication to ensure citizens are engaged and heard.

2. Seek High-Quality Engagement 

The key to improving constituent engagement is seeking high-quality communications rather than just reactions to mass mailings. Not only does this build trust, it also gives members an opportunity to understand how their constituency truly feels about an issue. How can members do that? According to Brad Fitch, it’s crucial that members build relationships with their constituents rather than be reactive. Dr. Neblo mentioned the need for identifying constituents who normally don’t engage and finding ways to involve them in the legislative process. High-quality engagement allows constituents to feel like they’re being heard and understood.  

3. Distinguish Meaningful Messages 

With mass messaging campaigns dominating the communications received by Congress, it’s important that members have the ability to distinguish the meaningful messages from the generic, robotic communications. While social media is aimportant platform for engagement, as mentioned by Marci Harris, it also tends to promote anger-filled messages rather than thoughtful issue engagement, which is why she’s creating a platform that allows members to engage directly with their constituents. Having an online platform that allows real-time engagement with legislation and for members and constituents to interact one-on-one would provide for more meaningful conversations, leading to a robust legislative process that incorporates a variety of viewpoints. 

One thing is clear: Congress’ outdated technology isn’t fit for the 21st century. With an extraordinary opportunity to improve constituent engagement, Congress must rethink the way it traditionally communicates and be open to using innovative technology for better outreach and feedback. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is aiming to tackle this – stay tuned!  

Miss the hearing? Watch it here!

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