Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Earlier this month, Wired published their take on The OpenGov Foundation’s exhaustive research into how Capitol Hill offices engage with, process and respond to constituent communications.

The article can be found here. The OpenGov report is here. Both are well worth the read.

The system is still broken…and now we know exactly how

The Capitol Hill communications problems detailed in The OpenGov Foundation’s report aren’t new. But their research goes into more detail on the root of these problems than I’ve ever seen. And, their people-centered design solutions are spot-on.

Their Capitol Hill staff interviews bring into stark relief just how ineffective most emails and phone calls continue to be. Social media communications are, somehow, even less effective.

The workflows offices use to collect and organize information and respond to constituents (or not respond, as the case may be) tell the whole story. You could easily spend a day puzzling through the Foundation’s flowcharts. They’re a total mess.

The sad reality is that we’re more likely to change our form of government than we are to make meaningful, timely improvements to generate more effective communications for the one we have.

Debating what these workflows should look like, though, misses the biggest point from the Foundation’s research.

Effective advocacy is about who sees your communications

Though the Foundation’s focus is on a developing a longer-term vision for fixing Capitol Hill’s technology and workflow problems, their report provides a timeless insight.

They confirm what should be the reality for every advocacy communicator: Regardless of how effective Congress’ process becomes or how well they might use technology in the future, advocacy strategy needs to focus on making sure communications get seen by higher-level staffers. The more of your communications that get seen by legislative directors, chiefs-of-staff and, ideally, the legislator, the better chance you have of influencing votes.

The report also makes clear that getting communications up the ladder to Congressional office decision makers is a quality play, not a quantity play.

If you only get one thing from this post, it should be this:

Even if Congressional offices could process communications with perfect efficiency, if your communications don’t it make it past the interns and staff assistants, you have zero chance of being successful.

An efficient process doesn’t dictate what communications are most effective.

Three ways to make it up the ladder

The OpenGov report provides some valuable clues on how to get your communications up the office ladder:

  1. Notice the difference in an office’s workflow between processing calls and emails and personal meetings. Meetings are a much simpler (by a lot) way to make sure your message is heard by the right staffers and that those staffers follow-up. Calls and emails are a crapshoot. A meeting is the closest thing to a guaranteed connection as there is in the advocacy world. The next time someone questions whether the extra time and effort to set-up these meetings is worth it (and it’s substantial, no doubt) show them this diagram. (Could this difference in workflows between emails and meetings change? It could. But, as with all of these studies, staffers also noted how much more impactful personal communications are.)
  2. Build relationships with higher-level staffers. Interns and staff assistants get the job of managing constituent communications. This isn’t going to change (I’m guessing that The OpenGov Foundation won’t be able to alter office politics). So when you have meetings, make sure the staffer who covers your issue is included. Get their phone number and their email and give yourself another way to avoid the general office inbox.
  3. Invest in finding compelling advocate stories. The OpenGov team witnessed how well-crafted constituent stories found their way into the chief-of-staff’s review pile. You don’t need a lot, either. The quality of the story and how it’s presented are enough to make it through. Don’t settle for letting advocates personalize a paragraph of your form email. That won’t cut it. Help them write it in their own words and in a format that they choose.

I can only hope that the foundation’s report jumpstarts the long overdue process of improving the way Capitol Hill manages constituent communications.

But don’t assume that new technology and better workflows will change what types of communications have the most impact.

What were your most important takeaways from The OpenGov Foundation report? Let me know at mike@relateadvocacy.com.

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