Where does your email go from there? Not into a black hole. Turns out, your email will go straight into the inbox of a staffer, who will summarize your specific concern for your representative. If it comes in on a wave of similar messages, it will still be read, and will be logged into a database used to track constituent communications. If it is an especially powerful message, by the time you are clocking out at work, your Senator may be reading your letter.
I wondered how it really works on the receiving end. What happens to email when it reaches the office of your elected official? Is it easy to reach out to local officials as well? I wondered about this process, and wanted to find out for myself. I wondered if officials in local government were more likely than those on the national level to follow up with citizens personally. I imagined emails being sorted by a computer keyword scanner of some kind, or sinking to the bottom of an inbox with thousands of messages. I was certain that communications sent to the President must be screened by White House staff in so many layers that it must be almost pointless to write in. I decided to find out how all that works, and I started right at the top.
I’d heard that this President personally reads ten letters from constituents a day, and responds by hand to three or four. According to an ABC News online report, the White House receives over 100,00 emails and letters a week. Staff, volunteers and interns whittle them down. They forward specific requests for information or assistance to the appropriate department or agency, and of course they pass threats along to the Secret Service. A New York Times article in 2009 profiled Mike Kelleher, White House Director of Correspondence. Kelleher heads up the process of sorting and analyzing letters from which the ten letters a day are pulled to land on Obama’s desk. After screening and sorting is done by other staff, Kelleher carefully considers roughly one hundred letters and emails per day. He looks for those that are representative of the bulk of in-coming mail, or those that pertain to current pressing issues, or those with a powerful personal story. Ten of those make it into the hands of the President.
But what about more ordinary but still heartfelt questions and concerns? Not every American citizen has an earth-shattering story to tell, but we all want to have a voice. I decided to pick up the phone and place a call to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to find out how my call would be routed, and see I would at least be able share my opinion about an issue in a voice mail message. I easily found a number on the White House website, and punched it in. It was quickly answered with a recording asking me to hold for a volunteer operator. A person? That would be a bonus. I noted the time, and in four minutes – four minutes! I was connected with a polite and very professional woman ready to take my question. I told her I was writing an article about voter access to elected officials, and wanted to know how it works when someone calls or writes in to the White House. I told her I was surprised to hear a live voice on the other end. She gave me the verbal equivalent of a courteous smile – I imagine I wasn’t the first caller to note that surprise.
The volunteer was very helpful. She explained that every call is logged, every email read, all letters reviewed, even faxes are received, and all of these messages are entered into a database of opinions and concerns. Everyone gets a response. An email will generate a return email from The White House, touching on whatever issues were raised and describing the President’s position. I don’t imagine most Americans know that typing whitehouse.gov in a search field will take you so quickly to contact information for the President’s staff, or that every time you share a comment or concern, someone will collect that information and log it into a database.
I charged ahead and phoned one of the in-state offices of US Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC). A staffer there explained that the Senator receives thousands of communications a week, by email, phone, fax and mail. They are divided into two types. One type is labeled casework and includes personal requests for assistance navigating federal agencies like the VA, Social Security, or Immigration. Casework requests go promptly to senior staff for initial problem solving, then on to Hagan herself.
Senator Hagan also receives communications from voters registering their views on issues and policies affecting the state. These calls and letters are treated with great importance. According to the staffer, each and every one is considered significant, and is carefully reviewed. They are read by members of the communication team and logged according to topic and point of view. The staffer indicated that Hagan looks forward to reading individual letters pulled by staff to call attention to the general course of response to issues. He emphasized that there are never emails or letters that go unread, and everyone gets a response.
David Ward, Communications Director for Senator Richard Burr, (R-NC), reflected the same level of priority placed on constituent communication in their office. It was interesting to find the the Director so accessible to answer my questions about voter access to Senator Burr. I had simply placed a call to a number I found on the Senator’s website, and explained to an office assistant that I had a few questions for an article I was working on. Within a couple of hours I received an email from Ward providing me with his name and direct line.
According to Ward, the bulk of communication from constituents these days arrives in email form. Those seem to be the easiest for voters to send, and are easy for his office to categorize and respond to. Postal letters are always welcome, he said, but voters should know that they take a little longer to reach Senate offices than they used to. Ward explained that since the anthrax crisis following 9/11, postal mail has been routed to an outside agency for screening before it arrives on Capitol Hill. Once there though, it is treated with interest and importance, and like distinctive emails, may end up directly on Senator Burr’s desk.
“We do read every piece of mail, and listen to every call,” Ward stated. “We have staff in North Carolina that respond to casework, and we have other staff who manage concerns about pending legislation.” Ward acknowledged when asked that the Communications staff can tell when an advocacy group has initiated an "email blast". Even when they are sent from individual email addresses, these come in waves and often have identical wording. But I was interested to find that they are really tracked no differently from comments that come in a more personalized form
Like Hagan, Senator Burr places a high premium on hearing from North Carolina residents. His team pulls out letters that are exceptional or representative of a trend in opinions, and the Senator may have them in hand before he leaves the office at the end of the day.
US Congressman Brad Miller, (D NC-13) the House Representative for my own district, recently received honors for his top-notch accessibility processes from the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to evaluating and improving communication between citizens and Congress. Miller received their 112th Congress Bronze Mouse Award, commending him for “educating citizens and achieving the highest degree of transparency and accountability in online communications.” CMF believes that each visitor to a Member’s website is like a citizen arriving at their office door, providing an opportunity for the Member to “enlighten and serve (the) constituent.” The Miller site (bradmiller.house.gov) is the picture of best practices, providing links to Miller’s voting records, legislation he has sponsored, and clear positions on issues. It is also attractive, welcoming, and easy to navigate.
Ajashu Thomas, in Miller’s Washington office, informed me that already this year they have received over 34,000 communications. They come by fax, phone, email and post, and each one is entered into a central database. They are each responded to individually. Thomas explained that Congressmen Miller’s staff, like those in the office of other Members, provides direct responses only to correspondence from the people Miller serves in District 13, but as a courtesy between Members of Congress, when they receive communications from citizens outside the district, these are forwarded to the appropriate Congressional colleague. Thomas informed me that as with Burr's office, Miller's does not separate individual emails from those that come in as group mailings. They do try to prioritize getting a timely response to people who have not been communicated with before, versus those with whom they have corresponded multiple times.
So far this expedition had yielded terrific results, but when I turned to the local level, I experienced a mixed bag of access and responsiveness. While the volume of communications there may be lower, so apparently is the level of staffing and infrastructure. Based on what I encountered, I wondered if under-staffed local government officials find that dedicating significant resources to correspondence yields diminishing returns.
Earning the highest marks was the State Senator who represents my district, Josh Stein (D- Dist. 16). I had written Senator Stein an email in September regarding his vote on a contentious state issue, and had received an acknowledgement within hours, so I was optimistic. When I wrote him again for this article, his response came quickly again. Receipt of my email was acknowledged immediately by Stein himself, and within the week I had received a thorough and helpful response.
Senator Stein shared that his policy is to answer letters with letters, email with email, and calls with calls. In addition, he frequently meets with constituents face-to face. While Stein always responds personally when asked for by a caller, he employs his staff to problem-solve miscellaneous casework. Mass emails receive a prepared response; individual communications garner a unique response. This system of responding in like-style seems fair and realistic. The voter gets out of it whatever is put in, and the form-letter-to-form-letter approach frees up time to engage more personally with those who do the same.
Stein feels that these communications – in every form – are critical. He values input on pending legislation, and says that as his charge is to represent the needs of his district, he relies on knowing clearly what they are.
My most frustrating experience occurred when I tried to reach a staff person in the mayor’s office. First, to the casual user the city website is fairly opaque. There was an "about town" feature highlighting the mayor's activities - this looked like an ongoing piece, but it didn't link directly to his office. Sidebars offered information about very specific citizen concerns, but no general “contact us” information. With a couple more clicks I eventually found a number, but that turned out to be the easy part! The same questions that had been enthusiastically answered by staff at the White House, the US Congress, and the NC Senate, when presented to the mayor’s office, were treated with suspicion.
I explained that I was doing research on the processes elected officials use to keep in touch with constituents and respond to their questions and concerns. There was a pregnant pause, and a long hold while I was switched to another staff person. No problem, I thought, and I repeated my initial question. I was asked what I was “getting at”; what was “behind” my questions. I became extra-friendly, and elaborated that I was writing a non-partisan, objective piece about voter access to elected officials, and wanted to know how this mayor or his staff receives, sorts, and responds to mail, calls, and email. I was asked to “be more specific about what kind of information” I was looking for. I explained that it was really nothing more than what I had already said, just wanting to get an idea of how they screen and sort mail, whether they have someone assigned to that task or who it might fall to, and a question about volume. The staffer again balked, curtly saying she would "need to know what direction (I was) going in with these questions before answering them.
Stumped, I cut my losses by asking her if email was a good way to reach the mayor’s office, she said yes, and we ended the call. This was probably an issue of poor job performance more than anything, but I also may have hit the spot here where preparation, training, and resources do not match reasonable expectations for citizen access.
Seeking to go one step more local, I saved my last evaluation for the accessibility of my school board representative. I would call this my most challenging but ultimately rewarding exchange. As my district’s representative during a divisive two-year term, Keith Sutton had done a super job navigating through some complex situations and tough public meetings. I wanted to help him get reelected.
I was conscious of the fact that even before I was working on this article, I'd had a little trouble reaching Sutton. I had sent him an email a couple of months back, with a question about an issue that was before the board. I had never heard back, but I wrote again once the campaign season had kicked in, letting him know my previous question could wait, but hey, where could I get some yard signs? No response, so I figured he was bogged down. I found a campaign website and used their online form to volunteer. I didn't get a follow-up call or email within a week, so I repeated the signup process and still got no response. Getting curious and a little frustrated, I located Sutton's work phone number online and left a couple of voice mail messages, pointing out nicely that he should probably get back to me soon, as after all, I was trying to volunteer!
Time passed, and Sutton was reelected easily. I had begun work on this article so my mission now developed into a quest to understand what had preventing me from reaching him as either a constituent or a supporter. Feeling like a stalker now, which we joked about once we finally spoke, I resorted to leaving Mr. Sutton two messages on facebook. This at last yielded an email response with an invitation to call and the best number to use.
I won't give Mr. Sutton a complete pass for the prolonged lack of communication. But after we spoke, I can say he did an excellent job of painting a picture of what might have gone wrong. He was very receptive and apologetic, and voiced his intent to take a look at those processes.
Sutton shared a little about what it takes to represent 100,00 people in a school district. Aside from fulfilling the requirements of a sitting member of a very high profile school board and running for reelection to that position, he holds a demanding full-time job. He confirmed what I had suspected – it is up to him alone to respond to nearly all of his correspondence. He did have a volunteer spending a few hours a week managing his website and other campaign responsibilities, and he promised to look into the disconnect on the two efforts I made to volunteer there. But he is usually on his own with emails and phones calls, and it can be tough to keep up with. Sutton was very approachable on this phone call, took full responsibility for the breakdown, and had me wanting to come clean out his inbox by the end of the conversation.
At the local level, communication volume-to-staff ratio can be almost untenable. But citizens can push representatives to do what they have to do to stay engaged and responsive.
My research into this topic was heartening. There is no question elected officials take constituent communications seriously. While that should go without saying, there is a public perception that letters are tossed on a pile to languish, that office-holders don’t pay attention to mass emails from advocacy groups, and that – especially at the highest level, correspondence will be intercepted by staff and the actual elected official will never see them. While there is an element of truth to some of these assumptions, I was cheered to find out how much of that perception is not true. In all offices but that of Raleigh's mayor, the spirit displayed is neither nonchalant or dismissive. From the state legislature through the US Congress to the White House, it is clear that every piece of communication that comes in is read, and that the more effort the voter puts in to the communication, they more likely it is to make its way to the desk of the official.
Most remarkable is the ease with which voters can interact with office-holders. Using websites like whitehouse.gov, senate.gov, and house.gov can take you from not knowing who represents you to the right name and contact information, to a user-friendly email form, to the exhilaration of being heard. I can't imagine a more empowering feeling for a citizen in a democracy to have than to know that your stated opinions can end up on a desk on Capitol Hill, and have an impact on the law of the land.