Congress uses social media to talk, not listen
The survey, published Jan. 26 and based on anonymous responses solicited by the Congressional Management Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, finds that of the 138 senior legislative office managers and communication staffers who responded to social media questions, 20 percent said Facebook is a "very important" tool for communicating a member's views. But only 8 percent said it is very important for understanding constituents' views.
The divide between broadcast and feedback is even starker for YouTube, which 20 percent said is very important for communicating whereas only 4 percent said the same about understanding. For Twitter, the numbers are 12 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Comments from social media sites also have little influence on how undecided members on a particular issue ultimately decide to vote, the survey finds. Of the 194 senior managers and mail staffers who responded to questions about what types of constituent interaction directed toward the Capitol Hill office of a representative might sway a decision, only 1 percent said social media comments have "a lot of positive influence." A likely explanation for this is that members "cannot tell whether comments are made by constituents," says a Congressional Management Foundation report on the survey results.
Underlining the importance of access in the nation's capitol, 46 percent of the 194 senior managers and mail staffers said that in-person visits from constituents have a lot of positive influence on representatives' decisions.
Messages, even direct ones, from people unable to visit their representative's office in Washington have considerably less impact. Individualized (not form) letters have a lot of positive influence in the estimation of just 20 percent of surveyed staffers and individualized email messages (again, not form messages) have such influence in the eyes of 19 percent of surveyed staffers. When it comes to form messages, whether sent via email or the postal system, only 1 percent of staffers said such efforts had a lot of positive influence.
In general, staffers overwhelmingly believe that the Internet and email have made it easier for constituents to become involved in public policy and to communicate with their representatives, but staffers don't necessarily believe that's a good thing, according to the survey.
Of the 260 staffers in total who submitted survey responses, 65 percent said that email and the Internet have reduced the quality of constituents' messages and only 41 percent said that modern communications technology has increased citizens' understanding of what goes on in Washington.
"The ease with which constituents can communicate with their member has really diluted the quality of communications overall. We get way too many email inputs that forward the Congressman some email or YouTube link with 'is this true' as the only message," one House legislative director said in his survey response.
- download the survey results and report from the Congressional Management Foundation (.pdf)