Future of Emailing Congress
Internet Advocacy Roundtable: The Future of Emailing Congress - New Solutions Offered and Old Myths Busted
May 15, 2008
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Introduction by Alan Rosenblatt of CAP
Hello, my name is Daniel Bennett and I am not with any organization. I do want to thank the Center for American Progress Action Fund for inviting me here to the Internet Advocacy Roundtable and Alan, especially, for his encouragement and help. And although my work was unfunded, there were numerous individuals, offices and companies that helped who I thank.
“Whoops” is not what someone wants to hear their technical support say. Yet in the debacle that was Y2K, “whoops” is what CEOs, governors, the president, and the public heard their collective tech support say. Even now with most people having access to computers and the Internet, there is still a curtain hiding from view the icky programming stuff. Few want to peer into the world of server rooms and cubicles for the programmers. As someone once said, “Software programs are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made.” Whoops again. That quote was actually about laws. Perhaps it is no accident that both laws and software is often both called “code,” both built on a secret language that no outsiders can pierce.
The veils of secrecy and white lies that hide software engineers and lawmakers are as often assembled or dissembled by both the makers and the consumers. And the most dangerous aspect of this is the curtains between the lawmakers and their technical staff. All of which has led to lawmakers garbled references to pipes for the Internets and contradictory apocalyptic or utopian visions of technology, thanks to the inability or disinterest in what hides behind the curtain. And from the geeks, well, it is most likely that they figure they can reprogram politics once they get the specs like some type of Sim video game.
And so I will be looking at one area that is plagued with misunderstandings and myths, Internet based communications between congress and constituents. My hope is that at least a few from each side will be brave enough to join me in exploring this new ground. First I will bring everyone up to speed on how the current system actually works. Then I will explain the breakthrough in allowing advocacy groups to participate more effectively in the constituent to Congress communication system. In the second hour I will go over some new projects based on the new way to communicate, some admittedly geeky stuff. For that I will give a quick tech lesson for those staying to hear about the exciting possibilities. Please, at any point, please interrupt me to ask for either the plain English of the geek or wonk jargon I happen to let into my conversation.
Communicating with constituents is engrained into the mind of many elected to Congress. Let me read a passage to illustrate this:
Doing everything one could do with the mail meant answering every letter—and that was what he insisted his office must do. And not only must every letter be answered, he told Latimer and Jones, it must be answered the very day it arrived….The early morning mail delivery was only the first of three—and then four, and then five—made during the day….Johnson would sort through the bundles, writing brief instructions on each letter about its handling and dividing the letters between his two aides. And before [an aide] would be allowed to leave the office, the pile would have to be gone….There was no escape from the mail….It was important to get mail, [an aide explained] So if the mail got light, we had to generate mail. Any day we didn’t get a hundred letters was a terrible day. –from Robert A. Caro’s biography of LBJ, The Path to Power (pg. 233)
I was in charge of the mail system for six years starting in a freshman office. Technology had changed significantly from LBJ’s early years in Congress, and offices had access to computer systems that allowed for software to track receipt and response to records as well as allowed printing of letters with signatures. But much of the process had not changed, especially in the approval of responses. And when we were one of the first to accept emails from the public, there was never a change from that process. On the public side, especially those who were already used to the informality of email correspondence and the Internet generally, the formality of congressional responses may have seemed unusual or unnecessary. But to this day that cultural aspect of the Internet age still has not diminished the process or the nature of work as described in Caro’s pages.
And starting before the email adoption in Congress was the use by outside groups to use direct mail—direct mail technology based on computerized lists of addresses and rapid printing of personalized letters. Often these direct mail campaigns included a postcard to the citizen to send with their signature. Occasionally there were bulk letters sent directly from Western Union or elsewhere, essentially constituent communications by way of an organization.
And thus began a series of myths, designed in some ways by aides to avoid even more work and by outsiders unfamiliar with the nature of politics.
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spam
Derivation of the Word Spam as It Relates to Email
(for more read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spam_%28electronic%29)
Back in 1993, opening up to email was a high priority for me personally and considering my boss represented Silicon Valley, it made sense that we should be ready to communicate using the same technology as a large portion of the district. But the correspondence system which works well for letters was a separate program from the email system. So what seemed obvious to me, that electronic messages should be able to feed into software seamlessly, was actually not possible then. In fact, it created more work than regular letters.
So I worked with our vendor to develop a solution for receiving messages through the Internet directly into the correspondence system and then allowed a response. At the beginning, we used a web form to take input from constituents and then immediately put the information into our system. Eventually, our vendor developed software to grab the postal address from inside an email and do the same thing. But until that was ready, we had to print the email out and stick it into the same pile as the letters, although now I could at least respond by email.
With the new system I was able to more efficiently deal with email than regular messages. In some instances, when a there was an approved response message appropriate to an incoming email, our office was able to turn respond in the same day we received the message.
Myth One: People Who Send Email Should Receive Responses by Snail-mail
Although our vendor made this add-on to their system available to all offices, not all of their other clients immediately adopted the system. And other vendors took several years to catch up. Like now with the new system I am talking about, it was difficult for others in the trenches to make the changeover. Sometimes it was lack of interest such as our district in not Internet savvy which although true for those not sending in email, was not true for those that did. But in some cases myths developed prior to the development of the new feature that precluded its full use.
The most common myths were that people wanted a formal written response with a signature even when sending email and that sending email responses opened your office to being spoofed. Both were simple to refute, first sending an email response (which costs nothing) did not preclude following up with a printed letter. And secondly, even if you never sent an email, you can still be spoofed. And furthermore, a responsible journalist (yes, there are some) might believe an office that had the audit trail that the correspondence system created. But once engrained, it was very difficult for offices to change policies that they had made a point of in public.
My suspicion has always been that what happened in those offices was that overworked aides did not have systems in the beginning that allowed the correspondence system to email responses and that is was easier to come up with excuses for not sending email than the truth that it would have entailed a great deal of extra effort. In the early days, it was even impossible to copy and paste text between the email and correspondence software, much less email in batches.
I Left and Then Came the Onslaught
When I left working in a congressional office, there were few advocacy groups forwarding messages from constituents. The system I had instigated and helped develop was only intended to help citizens directly communicate. And then I went to work helping advocating for using email to communicate with Congress. Back then I mainly had to deal with the myth that email was not important to members of Congress compared to other messages.
This myth was pernicious. First, outsiders did not realize that any form of communication with constituents is prized by members of Congress, because it facilitates the beginning of a personal correspondence with that constituent. This is regardless of what the message might say. But this is not an obvious selling point to the advocacy groups. Or for the overworked Hill aides. But then the more difficult issue is whether any constituent communication can change the vote or even point of view of the member. Politics is a sausage grinder, and there are no easy formulas or set of ingredients that work every time.
But arguments that email could be politically effective could not compete against the stampede driven to email by a non-political realization. Advocacy groups need to appear important to their membership and to appear to be an important conduit for their supporters. And oh yes, email is cheap. Or is that talk? And in the years since 1999 when I left the Hill has seen the Internet bubble turn into the Internet Age with broadband usage probably higher than plain old telephone dial up (anybody here remember what that modem sounded like?)
I am not trying to be cynical and so that advocacy groups were not trying to advance a political agenda. But quite often the lobbyists are separate from the techies, membership and marketing folks in advocacy groups. The techies might press forward a high tech approach, membership folks might see an advantage to Internet as a means of communication. But the lobbyist must balance their own expertise with the unknown impact of grassroots support through the Internet. After all, the term that was given to postcard campaigns, the most obvious analogy to emails forwarded from constituents was “Astroturf.”
And speaking of “Astroturf”
And speaking of “Astroturf,” as messages started flooding congressional offices, advocacy groups were only just learning about the process and utility. And the tools that advocacy groups used allowed the group a great deal of flexibility in what the messages included. Postcards were hated by offices due to their great volume which caused more work despite being easier to data entry than ordinary letters. And the postcards, especially ones generated by senior organizations that included nearly incoherent messages or just the same message month after month, gave the impression that the sender was barely aware of the message (well, except for the handful where the sender crossed out the message and wrote an opposing message). So advocacy groups were advised by consultants to use tools so each message could be different. Sometimes the tools gave a blank-slate to each supporter and sometimes gave language that could be cut and paste into the message and be amended.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of the congressional office this took the worst from the postcard by allowing a heavy volume of correspondence to enter the system without allowing it to be easy to tell which response each of these messages were about. And to add injury to insult, the messages were often more garbled or off message increasing the work of the aides who had to read each message (ok. Skim the message). Eventually one of the correspondence system vendors even added a feature to guess with relative probability which campaign the garbled messages were part of.
I seriously question the political strategy of sending messages that would either be skimmed or sent to pattern recognition algorithms to be sorted. And offices that were surveyed about these messages felt obligated to respond that obviously an individually drafted well written message would be more highly regarded as messages that were identical and showed less personal effort. And they said this with a straight face as they probably wanted to scream, “stop the flood, I am up to my neck with this and want to get a better job fast”. And, of course, do whatever they could to slow the flood.
Add on top of this the real problem: Hill aides felt they were not equipped to handle the onslaught of emails. Whether it was a combination of lack of resources, lack of training, lack of awareness of better tools or lack of interest, email has become the bane of existence for Hill offices. And advocacy groups believing the myth of importance of individual messages being more important, kept up the deluge of truly mixed messages.
The Mythical Beast of the Email Hydra
So like sending letters in response to email, aides have created many roadblocks to incoming messages to avoid being overworked (and I am very sympathetic to this worry). But again overwork is not always an effective reason for not responding to constituents. So reasons were created to give cover for not responding to emails. Some were reasonable and some were purely mythical. By far the easiest technique for not responding was to avoid accepting the message in the first place.
So as an unintended consequence of developing a web form to allow messages to go directly into the correspondence system, other offices accepted the online tool I helped develop to not only use the automatic data entry, but as an excuse to turn off the public email address. Sometimes they would turn off the email address later. But turning off the public email address spread across the Congress. To justify this, I have heard offices bring up the myth of spam.
Who knew a lunch meat would become the most feared substance to Hill aides. Spam spread out to encompass any and all email. Despite the leading vendor having tools for taking email and sorting out unusable emails and doing a respectable job automating receiving other messages, offices still would not take email. Email is so easy to generate that it was possible for advocacy groups or mischief makers to take an electronic list of people and email addresses to flood offices with illegitimate email. And the Hill used electronic equivalent to irradiation to kill the so-called spam.
So having turned off the spigot from email, the offices were protected somewhat from the onslaught. However, advocacy groups who used vendors to forward messages on to Congress learned to send messages through the web forms second hand. However, it is hard to know the truth of whether the remaining messages were truly illegitimate or not. There is no official reporting of anything as it pertains to messages to Congress.
In this whole history of communicating with Congress, it is crucial to understand there are no rules regarding being accurate or truthful about what is sent into offices. And with exceptions, the Hill aides are poorly equipped or trained to do more than respond to messages as best they can and print our reports based on what is successfully recorded by their correspondence system. Doing a comprehensive analysis of real data is almost impossible. Most of what we know happens is based on asking those crunched in the middle of the onslaught to stop and look around to see what is causing them to drown in work.
So the Hill tried to hack another head of the email hydra by adding a system to their web forms that would attempt to slow down the onslaught. The effectiveness of this caused the advocacy groups and vendors to wake up to the problem. Finally the overworked aides had a way to slow the onslaught. Which brings us to today.
Fixing the Problem
OK. Yes I felt a little guilty, not realizing the unintended consequences. The system I had helped develop had been adopted as the official solution by the House of Representatives and all of the vendors had adopted it. But the system was not designed for the onslaught from advocacy groups.
From the outside advocacy groups could only see the web forms and to them it looked like over 500 different forms. Each form asked for the same types of information such as name, postal address, et cetera, but in slightly different ways. The advocacy groups had to use vendors that could track each of 500 forms that would change without notice from time to time and change how they forwarded through the each form.
What the advocacy groups did not realize was that all of the forms were doing was generating an email that could be read automatically by the correspondence system, yes, email. And in most cases, the body of the email used the same format that my vendor and I had developed. I believed that opening up the format to outside groups would allow for the messages to be delivered more easily. But opening up the system might create more unwanted work.
So I felt I needed to make sure any change to make it easier to send in more messages had to be balanced by making it more efficient and faster to deal with additional messages.
Creating a System that Met Several Criteria
Here is a list of the criteria I felt I must meet with a new system and why:
- The new system must be almost free for inside the Hill because offices have very small budgets for capital improvements.
- The new system must work seamlessly with their current correspondence system, because most offices do not have long term workers who can afford to be trained on a new system.
- The new system must not force offices to accept unformatted messages that they still seem unprepared for.
- The new system must be easy and not require advocacy groups to pay a license for the technology or else their vendors would refuse to cooperate.
- The additional messages cannot increase the overall amount of work for congressional offices.
- Advocacy groups and citizens cannot be legally required to prove or authenticate who they are (the recent Supreme Court ruling does not apply yet to the right to petition government, only nuns who want to vote).
- Any additional requirements should not include advocacy groups to have to contact, coordinate with or depend on congressionally created preset issues prior to sending a single message.
- And, finally, make sure that I beat back many myths and worries that would preempt adoption.
YIKES: Come Up With a System that No One Has to Pay For
Profiting from a new system based on those criteria was the most difficult impediment for me. However, after working on this for a couple of years and having it ready to go, I was fired soon after I had to become a caretaker for a sick family member. So I decided in my spare time for the next year or so I would just tell people how to do it.
I began the beta testing with the help of Lockheed Martin and InterAmerica who are two of the four or so correspondence vendors and Hill offices including Rep. Sam Farr and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. And I checked with the other vendors to make sure they could easily and quickly to adopt the new system. And I had gotten help from an advocacy organization to create real campaigns that would truly test the new system. Fortunately the beta tests worked without a hitch. Ironically the office that was most willing to do the beta test was already the most open of offices to email and very adept at handling incoming messages. Oddly, offices that effectively used the tools they had and were well trained had the least to gain from the new system. And those that had turned off email and worried about additional messages were the offices that would be less willing to try new solutions, especially if they had a lot invested in explaining why not to help advocacy groups get more messages past their defenses.
OK. Now Spill the Beans, What is the New System
If I had shown you the new system at the beginning, as I did last October at the CMF event, it might only take me 5 or then minutes. But then what would we have done for the rest of the time. I believe that the context and history will help to make it easier to understand the new system and more importantly help our community avoid future problems by understanding the actual processes.
There are two simple changes that can be implemented to use the new system. First is to allow advocacy groups to use the XML standard that is used internally (see example). This means that the messages will be generated by the advocacy groups own web form for citizens. This is converted into XML as seen in the example and transported one at a time into the correspondence system, same as the web forms hosted by the members of Congress. Yes, the transport is an email, but not a regular email.
The second is that the advocacy group append a code into the XML formatted message which will identify each message as being one of a larger campaign. The advocacy group can pick any URL/web address that they desire as what I call the Topic Code. The advocacy group does not need to give any congressional office advance notice or use preset subject codes. I recommend that the URL used is the same as the one that has the web form that citizens use to agree to write and/or the message.
Any office that wants to continue to block regular email can easily do so and only accept the messages that are preformatted by the advocacy groups that choose to use this system. Advocacy groups will just have to wait for offices to turn on the feature one office at a time and then make sure to send in the message preformatted according to the standard.
Because this new system is only a small add on to the one that is already used by all offices, there is very little to it, but it can transform the situation to the benefit of everyone.
Benefits to the Congressional Offices
The main benefits to the Hill office are:
- Automatic data entry of messages.
- Allow for messages to be quickly and easily grouped with 100% accuracy
- Potentially save hours a week in sorting, responding to and tabulating results
- Allow staff to create more accurate and timely reports
- Improve the timeliness and accuracy of responses to constituents
- Depending on the URL used by the advocacy group, the ability to gauge the type of campaign and get additional background and contact information
- Easier to identify and delete messages sent falsely en bulk
Benefits to Advocacy Groups
The main benefits to the advocacy groups include:
- A reality check about the ability of one staff person in a congressional office to read several thousand slightly different messages and accurately, in a timely manner respond to the citizens
- Gives the advocacy group the opportunity to have their overnight messages before a big vote the next day, be acknowledged, tabulated and reported to the member of Congress before the vote
- Depending on the URL used get across to Hill offices background information and the chance to reach the office directly
- Increased chance that the messages will be received
Benefit to Citizens
Yes, Virginia there is a benefit for average people
- Greater chance message will be received and responded to
- Greater opportunity to be heard as a larger movement of people
- Likelier than current system to have individual messages actually read, because
- More letters automatically tabulated means truly non-mass campaign messages will be easier to find
- Making the system more efficient will increase time to do better follow-up
- Campaigns that ask for individual stories will be easier to find even after getting tabulated and responded to as a campaign
Potential Drawbacks of System
The new system helps, but will not solve everything. For examples:
· Will not stop bad actors from trying to game system
· Will not make up for poorly trained staff
· Does not force advocacy groups to include contact information
· Does not include absolute assurance that person is real (which may be impossible anyway)
· Having Hill offices that take years to implement the new system increase the complexity for advocacy groups and their vendors
Open Conversation for Questions
After questions, I will give a preview of potential improvements of the system and some related new possibilities.
What about proving they are not zombies?
My suggestion is that advocacy groups agree to use an OpenID service (http://openid.net/) for their web sites or forms. And the groups should promote OpenID services that authenticate when possible people against the voter registration records and that attach the personal contact information to the OpenID (which would allow forms to be automatically filled in). See the http://openid.myjohnhancock.org/ site which I am setting up as a test. And although congressional offices would not be themselves checking the authentication, the offices would more likely trust advocacy groups that adopted this. Using the URL that the advocacy group provided as the Topic Code would indicate whether the advocacy group was doing due diligence. However, I believe strongly that this should be optional and is mainly a plus for the advocacy groups.
What about getting more information in the messages from the advocacy groups (not just the Topic Code)?
It has been hard enough to get one additional item added to the systems, dragging in more that may have to be optional seems unnecessary. However, the Topic Code URL can be used in several ways to meet and improve on helping congressional offices learn more about the campaigns and how best to respond.
First, advocacy groups should probably include metadata in the web page that can be automatically grabbed by software in congressional offices. I would recommend using Dublin Core metadata (see http://dublincore.org/ ) and/or microformatted data (see http://microformats.org/wiki/hcard ). Offices can either use intranets or potentially improved correspondence systems to pull in the embedded information and then append more information if they choose.
Which all leads to the opportunity for caucus or conference organizations to provide better background materials that can be indexed by known Topic Codes as well as by issue area, bill number, committee jurisdiction, etc. In years past the Democratic Study Group published sample response letters and background information. Now these leadership intranets could create powerful research tools based in part on the Topic Codes.
Can only advocacy groups use Topic Codes?
Topic Codes are just URLs that are used as universal and unique identifiers that associate a message with a greater group. But the group does not need to be the advocacy group. For examples:
· Congressional offices could create their own Topic codes for their web site. Imagine a web form that asked the constituent visiting the congressional web site how they felt on an issue and then the answer was tracked by use of an internal Topic Code tracker (http://membername.house.gov/topictags/support110hr33passage)
· Bloggers could tag their posts with URLs for Topic Codes or bill numbers to allow their information to be aggregated more easily (www.blogcongress.com)
Technological Background behind Topic Codes and Future Internet-based Systems
· Understand the nature of the World Wide Web as a Database
o URLs are unique identifiers referencing every object in database
§ One URL must equal or reference only one object
§ URLs can be human readable with slashes to provide hints at hierarchies; or,
§ URLs should be definable using Regular Expressions
o The notion of an object database (as opposed to a relational or flat database)
o Web pages or web documents (especially XML formatted ones) are the “objects” in the object database (unlike rows in a database table, each object can have its own structure with hierarchically nested tags describing the data included
o To precisely query an object/page/document or group of the same XQuery can be used
· The native grammar of the World Wide Web is ReST, all the rest is commentary
o RESTful Web Services - Book by Leonard Richardson and Sam Ruby
o Based Roy T. Fielding’s dissertation
· Use URLs when possible as Tags (folksonomy versus precision)
o Think of a URL as two things appended, the authority and the name or internal numbering system. Consider the following URLs:
· Authority is: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.uscongress/
· Numbering system is: legislation (type of thing) . 110 (congress designation) hconres (abbr. type of bill) 196 (serial number of bill per congress)
· Authority is: http://www.technorati.com/tag/
· Name of tag is: barack+obama
· Authority is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
· Name is: Obama
· Authority is either: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=
· Or authority is: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl
· Or authority is: http://bioguide.congress.gov/
· Numbering system is more obviously: O000167
o Technology tool specific references kept in a URL add to confusion as well as queries
§ Avoid URLs that include: cgi, cgi-bin, node, .pl, .asp, .php, .cfm, .jsp., .aspx
§ Avoid using question marks for all but real queries that can bring back lists of objects/URLs
· Understand what metadata is, how it can be used, and the importance of using unique, universal and ubiquitous URLs whenever possible and giving preference to the most appropriate authority
· See http://advocatehope.org/tech-tidbits for more information
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