E-mail is overwhelming Congressional offices

E-mail is overwhelming Congressional offices, creating a customer service problem that Capitol Hill is not equipped to deal with, according to a new report.

The report, "E-mail Overload in Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis," found that the number of e-mail messages to Congress has more than doubled in two years, reaching 80 million to the House and Senate combined last year.

The report is the first in a series of studies on how Congress interacts with the public through the Internet, called the Congress Online Project. The project is run by the Congressional Management Foundation and the George Washington University and is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 1998, prior to President Clinton's impeachment trial, Congressional offices received a few dozen e-mails per week. But the beginning of the impeachment process marked the beginning of the e-mail revolution on the Hill, the report said. In January 1999, during a key week in the impeachment proceedings, House offices received up to a thousand messages a day while Senate offices received up to 10,000 messages a day. This year's election recount also sparked record e-mail highs. In December 2000, the House received 7 million e-mails.

The technology that was supposed to make Congress more accessible has instead led to frustrated constituents and frustrated members. "Rather than enhancing democracy--as so many hoped--e-mail has heightened tensions and public disgruntlement with Congress," the report said.

Grassroots lobbying efforts, in which groups organize e-mail campaigns to support or oppose certain measures on the Hill, are a major contributor to the problem, the report found. Most of the e-mails that members of Congress receive do not come from their districts or states.

Members of Congress and their staffs are also frustrated because e-mail has created a public perception that they are accountable to all members of the public, no matter where they are from. "Offices have responded to these non-constituent e-mail messages as they do with non-constituent postal mail--by ignoring them," the report said.

Congressional offices should automate as much of their e-mail response system as they can, the report recommended. One way to do that is by using a Web-based form for users to fill out, or using filters and rules to sort incoming mail. Chiefs of Staff should develop e-mail policies that spell out the office rules for prioritizing messages, responding to messages within a certain time frame, and saving messages for office records. Offices should also anticipate messages on hot button issues, and provide information on their Web sites that answer frequently-asked questions about those issues.

Several different software solutions are available to manage e-mail communications as well, and Hill offices should take advantage of them, the report said. The report analyzes the benefits and drawbacks of the different software packages currently available to Capitol Hill offices.

The report identified the following Congressional offices as using best practices to deal with e-mail communications:

  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
  • Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
  • Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
  • Sen. William Frist, R-Tenn.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
  • Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., 9th District
  • Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., 14th District
  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren; D-Calif., 16th District
  • Rep. Thomas Tancredo, R-Colo., 6th District
  • Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., 3rd District
  • Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., 1st District

Is your office overwhelmed by e-mail? How are e-mail communications managed at your agency or department? Send your responses to mailbag@govexec.com