Speed bumps slow e-mail routes on Capitol Hill

At agencies, correspondence can often be ignored without major consequence. But members
of Congress neglect voters at great peril. Capitol Hill is a special case in the ongoing
adaptation to communicating via e-mail. There are some real problems and perhaps some
lessons for other parts of the government.


Congressional offices are vast mail machines. A distressingly large percentage of the
staff spends its time sorting and answering mail.


If you write your own representative, you will get an answer. If you write to the wrong
representative, your mail will be forwarded by a staff member all too happy to dump work
onto someone else.


Most congressional offices are now Internet-literate. But few are organized to handle
e-mail. Offices frequently have to print e-mail and then send a response via the snail
mail stream, but that may be the best a representative can do at the moment. E-mail and
Congress just don't mix very well, and it may be some time before this changes.


E-mail does share a basic problem with snail mail: Congressional offices can't tell
where the sender lives unless the sender includes the information.


This is why many congressional World Wide Web pages tell e-mailers to include a street
mail address to receive a response. On the Net, home addresses are unimportant. But on
Capitol Hill, they're crucial.


The cultural clash is sharp. Agencies rarely have the same need to identify e-mailers.
One congressman's office reportedly gets some 100 e-mail messages a day, most qualifying
as junk.


Don't misunderstand, however. Staff members use e-mail to talk with one other and with
folks they know. They just aren't eager to hear from voters that way. It is not how they
do things on the Hill.


Current congressional mail management software is not designed to handle e-mail.
Vendors are scrambling to develop better software, but small Capitol Hill offices don't
always have the staff with the right technical skills to make a smooth or quick
transition.


Given the situation, how can anyone use e-mail to influence Congress? In general, the
same rules that apply to snail mail apply to e-mail. People should write to members from
their district and state. Writers must include a snail mail address so the congressional
office can identify voters.


The e-mail subject line can directly summarize a message and tell the recipient that
the sender is a local voter; for example, "Penn.-8 Voter Supports HR 1234'' or
"Calif. Voter Opposes Helms Amendment." Such a label helps the office direct the
mail to the right staff member.


Congressional offices are obvious targets for blanket e-mail. Unidentifiable e-mail is
often erased or ignored. No one has time to sort through all of it looking for a
constituent's message.


E-mailers must have reasonable expectations. Congress is not prepared to engage in the
rapid back-and-forth typical of e-mail communications. The problem is the same at
agencies, where routine correspondence is often read by several different people before it
is sent.


Eventually, the Hill will do a better job with e-mail. Once members realize they can
send e-mail messages to thousands of constituents at no expense, they will develop a
different attitude. But Netizens may not be so happy about electronic democracy when it
includes being spammed by Congress.


Congress has strict controls on outgoing snail mail. It remains to be seen whether the
House or Senate will also restrict outgoing e-mail.


Despite the widespread acceptance of e-mail, Congress and the rest of the government
still have to figure out how to integrate it into their routine activities. Until they do,
the best way for citizens to use e-mail is to find and organize others with similar
concerns.


A thoughtful handwritten letter may still be the best way to contact the federal
government. The Postal Service needs the money, and a letter will get more attention on
Capitol Hill than an unread e-mail message.


When Congress figures out how to deal with e-mail, maybe the agencies can take a lesson
about how to respond to large volumes of e-mail, as well.


Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations Subcommittee on
Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington privacy and
information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.


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