Adventures in San Francisco

Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

By Jessica Pearce

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongressmeetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

This was originally posted at the GovFresh blog on July 15, 2011