Here is a piece I wrote in 2006 that apparently disappeared from the Internet. Someone asked if I still had it. Lo and behold I do. So here it is.
NOTE: This was written 12 years ago. Nothing has been edited since then.
Can you just hear James Earl Jones saying that title? I can.
All jests aside, we are in the midst of a very touchy and serious debate over our rights to petition Congress via email. There are two key issues at stake here, as has been pointed out by Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post.
First, and most importantly, constituent email to Congress is being obstructed by Congress in two ways. Technologically, Congress has been implementing webforms and validation processes (for example, CAPCHA codes and Logic Puzzles) that are obstructing the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to petition the government in the name of protecting Congress from SPAM. Behaviorally, Congressional staffers are apparently ignoring and sometimes deleting constituent email because they don’t believe it comes from real constituents.
Second, as a result of the technological barriers erected by Congress, there is growing evidence that the ability to deliver email to Congress via grassroots advocacy email software is being hampered. Worse, the ability grassroots advocacy software to deliver the email to Congress is uneven in a way that seems to suggest that vendors who have the resources and the will to get the messages through are succeeding, while others who lack the resources, the will, or both are failing.
Much of this controversy has been going on since last summer when the Congressional Management Foundation reported that as many as half of Congressional staffers think form email campaigns are fake and another quarter aren’t sure. Then things heated up several months ago when Congress implemented the Logic Puzzles in the Write Your Rep email system. (For more on this part of the story, see my earlier posts here, here, and here).
In response, a coalition of advocacy groups and a coalition of software vendors each formed to engage Congress on the issue.
This week, Capitol Advantage released a study that reports the delivery rates for several grassroots advocacy software vendors. The results of that study have put a real strain on the vendor coalition, as they do not present favorably for several vendors.
This study, overseen by George Washington University Professor Dennis Johnson and conducted by staff at Capitol Advantage, Knowlegis, and e-advocates, is an enhanced version of a quick and dirty experiment I conducted about two years ago while I was working at e-advocates. The methodology for the new study is quite straightforward. 37 Congressional offices that use both auto-replies to constituent email and some validation method (CAPCHA code, Logic Puzzle, etc.) were selected. Then, messages were sent to each of these offices using several user interfaces (including the Members’ webform, Capitol Advantage’s Capwiz, GetActive, Democracy in Action, BIPAC, Convio, Kintera, DDC, Grassroots Enterprise, Vocus, and VoterVoice). The percent of the 37 messages sent receiving auto-replies was then reported.
On its face, this approach seems straightforward indeed. As long as the software systems send the emails to Congress using the constituent’s own email address, the reply should come back. But one of the vendors, Democracy in Action, actually swaps out the constituent’s personal email address with a unique Democracy in Action email address assigned to each activist. Thus the auto-replies come back to DiA’s server and not directly back to the constituent.
Thus the methodology is systematically designed to miss the delivery ability of DiA’s service. DiA says they are able to demonstrate that email sent through its system gets through to Congress because they have the auto replies in its system.
Leaving aside whether DiA’s solution is a good one, it is clear that it explains how they scored a zero percent on the study.
But the important issue here is not which software vendor is better at jumping through Congress’s hoops. It is that Congress is creating hoops in the first place.
If Congress is flooded with more constituent email than it can handle, it should increase its resources to handle it, not figure out ways to block constituent email. Efforts to block email will only give advantage to the larger, better resourced advocacy software vendors over the smaller ones. In essence, Congress is perpetrating anti-trust behavior by creating uneven market advantages for some vendors.
Worse, the barriers erected by Congress are obstructing real constituents from petitioning Congress via email. Consider that one office implementing the Logic Puzzle saw an 80% drop in email coming in through their servers. There is absolutely no way that all 80% of those emails were SPAM. Even the most generous estimates are that about 10% of emails flowing into Congressional offices are SPAM. The rest of the blocked email represent citizens denied their First Amendment rights.
The problems that need fixing are clear, and they are not the responsibility of the software vendors or the advocacy community. They are Congress’s responsibility. First, Congress must provide itself with the necessary resources to handle constituent email. In the last 5 years, constituent communication to Congress has increased 4-fold. In the past 25 years, Congress has not increased its staff or administrative budget. Further, instead of having a Congress-wide standard for email, each office is flying solo, free to choose its own system, its own subject headings for incoming email, etc.
If Congress is committed to constituent services, then it would create an environment that welcomes constituent communications and effectively processes them when they arrive. When that happens, there will no longer be any issue about which grassroots advocacy system is better at delivering email to Congress.
For more information see Colin Delany’s epolitics.com.