Congress curtails constituent email

By Susie Gorden

In response to the deluge of more than 200 million e-mails coming into Congress each year, some congressional offices have added authentication measures to their Web forms, restricting the flow of constituent communications to members.

But the main question swirling in these murky waters is how these new measures will affect communications between constituents and their elected officials, and concerns have been raised in the advocacy community that instead of enhancing democratic communications, Congress is using information-technology tools to curtail genuine dialogue.

Most members of Congress say the new authentication tools aim to combat “computer-generated messages” or “automated” messages that they blame for the tsunami of mail they receive.

Unfortunately, these statements are largely based on a misunderstanding of grassroots communications that originate on organizations’ websites that employ third-party email delivery systems.

Responsible vendors do not enable computer-generated messages. Online advocacy tools are set up to enable individuals, as well as constituents who have chosen to affiliate themselves with a group, to contact their elected officials.

In fact, a report issued last year by the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation supports the idea that Congress is likely blocking real e-mails from real people.

Advocacy groups have been concerned about the use of one of the authentication tools because the codes are sometimes difficult to read.

Others worry about the ability of citizens to answer the tool’s “logic puzzles.”

The majority of the logic puzzles are relatively simple to answer, but they may pose an unreasonable communications barrier.

Those with learning or comprehension disabilities may fail to answer the puzzles correctly and therefore lose the opportunity to reach their elected officials via e-mail.

One vendor that offers online advocacy tools has developed a technical solution that pulls the automated code into the existing system and requires the user to enter the authentication code that each office requires.

Other vendors are linking to these congressional members’ sites and pursuing other technical solutions.

The vendors are also organizing to better inform congressional offices of the important communications that they help to deliver, pointing out that even form letters have individuals behind them and are not spam.

The advocacy community and the vendors who serve them need to consider myriad stresses that congressional offices face, especially the deluge of mail they help to create.

Meanwhile, congressional staffers need to consider the valuable constituent communications they may be blocking inadvertently by erecting barriers.

Ultimately, all of these groups share the same goal — enabling meaningful and useful communications between individual constituents, the groups they choose to affiliate themselves with, and their elected officials.

And with that goal in mind, it behooves representatives from each of these groups to come together to formulate a workable solution for all.

Susie Gorden is director of government outreach and citizen communications for Capitol Advantage in Fairfax, Va.

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