Put the (e)Mailroom of the U.S. Congress Online

After spending my last blog post ruminating on how open data could improve New York City’s taxicab industry, I’m tasked this week with applying social media to the crowdsourcing of citizen input into the legislative process. Specifically, this post is about how to increase the role of the public in setting the U.S. legislative agenda by categorizing, aggregating and publishing data on citizens’ communication efforts with different Members of Congress.

Background: from One-to-Many to Many-to-Many. Historically, as has been widely acknowledged, the advent of the Internet is fueling the disruption of the “one-to-many” communication models of our past. As an example, in the past, one publisher like The New York Times would deliver the same newspaper to the doors of its many millions of subscribers. Today, we see social-media enabled “many-to-many” communication models in which many individuals become publishers (either by re-sharing content or by creating their own) with “many” potential audience members–in other words, audience members are all now publishers, and publishers are all now audiences. When I refer to social media, I thus broadly refer to the communication phenomenon of the masses communicating back and forth with the masses, as opposed to exclusively reaching large numbers of people through central publishers.

Many-to-Many Governance. In the U.S., as abroad, steps have been taken to increasingly shift the one-to-many authority of government into many-to-many collaborations for governance. One example of this shift is Madison, a tool created by the Open Gov Foundation that lets citizens add their comments to proposed Congressional legislation or collaboratively co-create their own legislation. Acceptance of volunteer-drafted legislation has yet to take off, but the power of large-scale, many-to-many collaboration can be seen in the open source software revolution and in the proliferation of crowdsourced systems like Wikipedia. To be sure, society still needs some platform (currently, representative democracy) to make the values-based decisions necessary to choose among competing priorities and protect the public good from private interests, and California’s struggles with direct democracy advise caution. Still, from an information standpoint, the submission of more ideas and perspectives from a wider array of citizens can only make us smarter.

Another step forward in many-to-many legislative collaboration is We the People, an online initiative of the Obama administration that promises an official White House response to any online petition signed by a threshold number of U.S. citizens. Sure, few petitions have resulted in a real policy change. In fact, most receive no response. But even among those whose petitions had no change, a surprising 78% surveyed found the response from the administration helpful, while 90% indicated that they were likely to create or sign another petition. Simply by showing citizens it’s listening, even when it doesn’t agree, government can make citizens feel more engaged. According to Tech President‘s Micah L. Sifry:

“Roughly two to three percent of [We the People's qualified petitioners surveyed responded], and by and large their comments were positive–even if they had just been told why their petition had been rejected. Nearly nine in ten said they would create or sign another petition, 78% said the response from the administration was helpful to hear, and half said they learned something new.”


(Sample infographic from We the People, via WhiteHouse.gov)

A citizen reaching out to the U.S. Congress should have an experience that mirrors We the People. At the Congressional level, much of citizen-to-government communication still takes place through letters, e-mails, and phone calls, most of which simply enter the black boxes of congressional mailrooms where they are tallied and responded to by low-level staffers and interns. An elected official may feel like they get a better pulse of their citizenry, but the rest of the country remains unenlightened.

Opening the (e)Mailroom. The pitch: why not create a platform through which citizens could monitor what other citizens are communicating to Members of Congress? In the same way that We the People transparently allows the public to see how many signatures different petitions get, and where the signees reside, what if citizens could also see how many letters different Members of Congress are receiving, and what topics each letter mentioned?

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(Sample geographic dispersion of secession-related petitions, via Tech President)

Congressional offices already tally the number of phone calls, emails and letters they get by topic, so from an operational standpoint, the idea of standardizing that categorization and aggregating the results shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. As a starting point, the easiest way to track, aggregate, and publish this information would probably be to put in place automatic e-mail scanning software, which would eliminate the need for staff to spend any extra time on this activity. Such software could be used to generate aggregate data tracking the number of times e-mails mentionedkey search terms (e.g., “guns” or “immigration”) individuals/organizations (e.g., “Eric Holder” or “DOJ”), and items of legislation or policy (e.g., “CISPA” or “Obamacare”). If not automatically filtered, citizens could also log into a third party portal to send their email, opting in to the content of their emails being made public.

Ultimately, one could imagine a portal that provided information on the volume of e-mails received by each Member’s office, coded with:

  • Tags for each key topic mentioned (to plot absolute and relative interest)
  • Dates (to show time trends)
  • Media sources (to eventually break out telephone and social media posts)
  • Geographic location (to plot by Member districts, possibly using IP addresses as locational proxies)
  • Number of unique senders of emails (to separately analyze repeat-mailers, using individual email addresses and/or IP addresses as proxies)

The point of tracking and publishing such information would be to gauge citizens’ interest in various public policy topics, with the goal of improving the power of citizens to shape the national legislative agenda. Citizens’ ability to influence Congress’ legislative agenda would be improved in the following ways:

  • Distinguishing between local, state and national citizen agendi. Members of Congress and the public would see which topics were primarily concerns of constituents living in individual districts, versus those topics that had broader levels of state and national interest. Plotting this data on a map would allow for better geographic targeting of public awareness campaigns, and enhance efforts to win hearts and minds.
  • Gauging the relative level of interest in a topic across different Member districts. Members of Congress and the public would see how interest in a topic varied across different members’ constituencies, providing valuable intelligence and leverage in determining the likely stakeholders and persuadables of a particular bill.
  • Measuring citizen interest in topics across time. As compared with a poll,  the level of interest in a topic could be plotted over time to evaluate the immediacy of certain issues.
  • Tracking overall citizen engagement via email over time. Interesting trends would undoubtedly emerge with regards to when and where citizens choose to send emails.
  • Empowering citizens to recognize disconnects between legislators’ actions and their advocacy. A system as described above would be one more data point for plotting disconnects between citizen advocacy and their representatives’ votes. Moreover, as opposed to an opinion poll, which is an indication of passive belief, such a system would represent acts taken by citizens. If citizens sent thousands of emails with the phrases “require gun background checks”, they likely would feel more outraged if their representative failed to take action, increasing the political price of a representative disobeying their constituents. At present, citizens merely know that their letter was sent–what if they knew exactly how many thousands of others had been, too?

Undoubtedly, some will oppose this initiative over privacy fears. But private e-mails are already sitting on public servers–is the idea of aggregating them and noting how many e-mails contained the word “Obamacare” really that scary? If successful, putting e-mail data online would undoubtedly open other doors. As artificial intelligence advances, the public might be able to see even more insights into the content of the letters–what percent of e-mails were positive vs. negative, or how passionately the author argued their case, for example. Here, recent efforts by Google and Twitter give us a peek at this emerging field known as “sentiment analysis”

Moreover, citizens don’t even need Congress’ approval to start implementing such a system. Someone could just build a third party website where citizens’ emails would be forwarded to Congress after securing the author’s approval.Citizens could tag their own e-mails, and share the fact that they had just sent an email on Facebook–proudly showing their friends how civically active they are. As distinct from a petition site, this sort of system could be designed for customized emails, not form letters, and collect more data on citizen responses.

Ultimately, in many ways, social media is changing the nature of information-sharing by shifting more power from the center to the crowd. As it evolves, it may increasingly make communications such as e-mail and phone calls obsolete. Still, in the meantime–and beyond–building a system to collect and analyze data about citizen-to-government communication would bring us toward a more truly citizen-driven democracy.