What's the right way to apply technology to constituent communication?
It may be 2010, but when it comes to how constituents contact their members of congress it's like we're still using the Pony Express. As Marci explained in our first POPVOX post , the (electronic) letter is still the medium that works best for constituents and for members of congress, as bad as the cacophonous situation is today.
There is a lot of room for innovation. But us technologists had to make a number of mistakes first. Last summer I ran an experiment over at GovTrack to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress . The letter, which happened to be opposing H.R. 45 , a gun control bill, was collaboratively drafted by 451 participants using MixedInk.com . It was a little like 451 people working on a wiki to write a single letter. (And it worked well, considering.)
I delivered the letter personally to the offices of eight congressmen and learned a few things. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories to the letter in their district. (We had some 3,000 people sign the letter after it was drafted.)
Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group-written letter as an innovative form of communication. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? Staff reactions were pretty much the same: Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition with 3,000 signers that is how they saw it. There was no added value of going through the hoops of drafting a letter collaboratively.
My experiment failed because I wasn't attuned to the needs of congressional staff. Communication is a two-way street, after all. Constituents have certain needs when communicating with their representatives, and staff for members of congress have different needs. What works for one may not work for the other. Letter-writing is good for constituents but it's too good. Constituents write so many letters that congressional staff can only barely claim to process them. It's just a bad situation.
The POPVOX team thinks it's hit a sweet spot with the development of our new tool. We're by no means intending to replace the letter, electronic or otherwise. Our tool is solely electronic and we recognize that not all communities are equally active online, and what's best for one community may not be best for all. But we think there are times when a communication with Congress could be most effective with something other than a direct letter, and that's where we're hard at work.
If I end here, I'm sorry for being a bit of a tease about what we're actually building. But I'll tell you the most important part: the what is less important than the how . On the surface our idea is not new. It's our team, our experience inside Congress, with Gov2.0, and advocacy and our connections that allows us to develop a deeply thought-through product that will surely be significant.
We're going to be blogging throughout our process of development and of course after launch, and I hope to write about our approach to handling constituent communication "data", plans for analysis, our commitment to open access, and other technological sides of the project.