Thoughts on 2014 – Citizen Engagement in Congress

How will diminishing office budgets in the Congress affect citizen engagement this year? Before the Sequester, Congressional offices spent thousands of dollars per month on telephone town halls, mass email communications and other basic outreach services to communicate with their constituents. There was a positive benefit from these services.

The Sequester is definitely taking a serious toll on how Congressional offices manage their office budgets, and citizen engagement is an unfortunate casualty. Congressional offices have less money to spend on constituent outreach services. Yet, this doesn’t mean that citizen engagement is less important than before. In fact, the demand to engage with citizens is ever increasing and not diminishing: elected officials should not cut back on their citizen engagement strategies. Not now, not ever. Instead, their challenge is to find new and better ways to connect with their constituents using fewer resources, both human and financial.

In the long run, I strongly believe that budget cuts will help to improve citizen engagement. Why? Tighter Congressional office budgets and leaner staff, will force Congressional offices to do more with less. Fewer resources will force Congressional offices to become more efficient and spur innovation in citizen engagement; Congressional offices will seek creative ways to maximize their staff and office funds because they have to – otherwise, they will fail in their mission to serve their constituents. Gone are the days of bigger budgets and ample resources. They must learn to operate on lean, mean, budgets – much like any small business. Leveraging low cost technology solutions, Congressional offices will discover new ways to connect with their constituents.

Some of my thoughts for 2014:

Sentiment analysis; iConstituent introduced sentiment analysis software to the Congress in 2009 with little sucess; most offices simply did not know how to turn the data into actionable information. The software provided a rich set of information to Congressional offices hoping to better understand how to serve their constituency. However, the question quickly became, “what do we actually do with this information and how do we turn it into action?” Though, fairly mainstream at this point, sentiment analysis software is not widely used in government. We may begin to see the use of sentiment analysis software in the Congress this year (again). Though, I believe the same issue remains; what do you do with the data? How do you turn it into actionable information once you have it? How do you use it to better serve your constituents? Aside from the “coolness factor,” it remains to be seen how Congressional staff will actually use this data.

Social media advertising; Congressional offices are spending money on Facebook ads to essentially market to their constituents. Though, some blogs, government watch dog groups and news media are critical of this practice, I believe it has tremendous merit. What’s not taken into account is that social media ad buying in Congress is actually saving taxpayer money; social media ads are less expensive than direct mail pieces – and more effective. The job of an elected official is to serve his/her constituents. Social media is an inexpensive and effective way of accomplishing this. I predict an increase in social media ad buying this year in Congress. That being said, it will still be dwarfed by the amount spent on Franked mail pieces.

Finally, given the state of Congressional office budgets, it’s doubtful that direct mail (Franked mail) will see an spending uptick. Though, it’s still the biggest expense overall with regards to constituent outreach, it has been on the decline over the last few years. The use of social media and mass email has taken the place of direct mail in many Congressional offices – and, I believe this is a good thing.