Congress has undergone a digital transformation in the last decade. Social media was rapidly adopted and is now used on a consistent basis by nearly all Member offices. The ubiquity of this newer form of communication has counteracted the erosion of older forms of constituent outreach, including traditional press and franked mail.
Periods of maturation often follow on the heels of periods of transformation. Social media platforms are more mature, and best practices more established. Offices are also more sensitive to the downsides of social media — negativity, disinformation, declining organic reach — than they were when we last surveyed House staff on these issues in 2015. Given established best practices and staffing constraints, staff are looking to evolve their use of existing communications channels rather than searching for entirely new platforms to use.
Nonetheless, the outside world continues to evolve in its use of technology. When there is an overwhelming change in how the public communicates, as there was with social media a decade ago, Congress has followed suit. Because technology never stands still, it is natural to ask: What new forms of communications are on the horizon, and what’s next for Congress?
Here is how Congressional staff and experts in the field see the landscape:
Texting and One-to-One Messaging
Texting and One-to-One Messaging Texting is ubiquitous as a tool for communication, and large organizations are becoming more adept at using it to communicate with customers or constituents. In particular, texting is a popular tool on the campaign trail, though all texts must be sent by an individual to ensure compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. There is a clear pathway to adoption, as incoming Members and Chief of Staff are always looking to use technologies that worked in their campaigns in an official capacity.
Currently, texting is being explored by 27% of Congressional offices in our survey, though adoption is limited to no more than a handful across Congress. Texting can be used in two main ways: to broadcast the same message to a large group, or as a receptacle for inbound constituent questions or comments, where staff texts back each constituent. With staff already deluged by a barrage of phone- and email-based communications, some offices expressed fear of opening the door to another inbound channel. This hesitation even extended to mass texts, where an office might feel an obligation to respond to constituents who reply. In their own pioneering effort, Rep. Rick Crawford’s office has dedicated staff for this purpose, but other offices express reluctance given manpower constraints.
Similar concepts are being piloted with messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, where constituents can send a private message to the office to express their opinion or solicit help with constituent casework. Offices may either respond personally, set up a bot to automatically deal with common requests (like tour, flag, or casework requests), or employ some combination of both.
At a certain point in time, constituents moved from primarily calling their Members of Congress to emailing them. As more and more communication moves to texting, there will be a growing expectation by constituents that Member offices will be responsive via this channel too. Despite staffing challenges, some pioneering offices are moving to provide constituents with this option, replacing one-way broadcast communication with realtime two-way interaction.
Artificial Intelligence to Automate Constituent Response Mail
Our study focused on outbound rather than inbound communications. The growing volume of inbound correspondence remains a massive challenge that could be the subject of its own report. Yet, a large share of staff volunteered this as their main communications challenge, the second most volunteered response behind issues with the franking rules.
Some technology vendors we talked to cited this as one of their top research and development priorities. One had received a grant to develop a system to automatically categorize incoming messages by issue, so they could be routed to the proper staff member and the right letter could be sent in response. Given the enormous amount of staff time spent sorting constituent mail, a system that could give them a head start could free them up for other essential tasks, like policy work or constituent service.
The vendor relayed that the same artificial intelligence could eventually be used to pre-write constituent response letters, in the same way that brief news articles about a sporting event or a stock price are automatically generated based on data about the event. The system could pull in a bill name, a description of what the bill does, and the Member’s position. While such letters would almost certainly be subsequently edited, they could at least cut the amount of time staff spends compiling basic information for response letter to focus more on the Member’s substantive rationales.
Structuring Communications Teams to Actually Listen to Constituents
In most offices on the Hill, inbound and outbound communications are handled by different staff members. One office decided to combine her communications and constituent correspondence staff in one team, so the office can focus on more thoughtfully and intentionally communicating their Member’s message across every interaction with a constituent. Within this structure, the office can quickly see what constituents are contacting the office about and make sure these priorities are reflected in their proactive outbound communications. Instead of only communicating what the office wants to communicate, by making outbound communications about the constituent, they can ensure that more constituent questions are answered before they even contact the office.
While Congress has gone from analog to digital, it has yet to fully move from one-way communication to the two-way communication that technology makes possible. There are remaining barriers to such a transition: both cultural and resource-driven. Culturally, offices are weary of what many viewed as an ill-fated experiment with two-way communication in the form of social media, in which constituents had the chance to talk back via the comment button, but much of it was so laced with partisan vitriol that substantive dialogue was rendered impossible. Efforts to maintain such a dialogue digitally may move from social media to more intimate forms of communication like texting or messaging platforms, where problems can be solved one-on-one and a more constructive dialogue is possible. This immediately raises the resource question: intensive two-way dialogue with constituents requires more staff and budget than Congressional offices currently have. Even if the House can pass institutional reforms, such as raising or eliminating the statutory staff cap, Member offices must still contend with the challenge of being asked to do more with 25% fewer resources than a decade ago. Technological sophistication can only go so far. Congress also needs the manpower to have a two-way conversation with constituents in the digital world.