Features – The Impact of the Internet on Representational Democracy

AdVanced Consulting’s principal, Stephanie D. Vance, has had over twelve years of experience in Washington, DC, both as a lobbyist and a congressional aide, including positions as legislative assistant, legislative director and staff director. She is the author of “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress” (AdVanced Consulting, 1999). Her work on congressional communications stems from a deep and abiding belief that the US system of government is effective only when citizens are active and well-informed participants. She has presented the concepts behind “How to Communicate with Congress” at events around the country, and has been a guest on the public radio show “Public Interest”, produced by WAMU in Washington, DC. Ms. Vance holds a Master’s degree in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University and is included in the 2000 edition of Who’s Who in American Women. Her Web site is AdvocacyGuru.com.

It seems like you can’t click the mouse these days without finding a website seeking to connect citizens with their government. But are these sites really helping citizens connect with their elected officials in a meaningful way? Has the Internet really led us to the brink of direct democracy? Or are the communications that are coming through these sites merely adding to the white noise that permeates Capitol Hill?

Does “Point-and-Click” Make a Difference?

As someone who spends a great deal of time teaching people how to effectively communicate with Congress, I am concerned that some of these sites leave people with the impression that being an effective citizen advocate is as easy as clicking a mouse. Pointing and clicking on the “yes” or “no” button on vote.com’s site is not equivalent to participating in a meaningful way – even if your vote is forwarded to your Congressional representative. Frankly, your vote, if you are lucky, will simply be tallied with other opinions, and that tally (again, if you’re lucky) may be 1/10th or 1/20th of a factor in your representative’s decision-making process. In most cases, your “yes” or “no” vote is simply deleted from the system.

If Not, What Does?

So what really influences members of Congress? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not money. In fact, it’s good old-fashioned policy analysis, research, and personal beliefs. To be an effective advocate, you must become part of that process – and you don’t get there by pointing and clicking.

The most important thing to remember in seeking to influence the policy making process is that you have something of value to contribute. You probably have a particular reason why you feel the way you do about a specific policy proposal, or a reason why you’re seeking a change in law. A thoughtful approach to policy issues combined with a careful explanation of why it’s important to you personally is very compelling to congressional staff and members. In writing a personal, thoughtful, well-argued letter or e-mail, your chances of influencing your Representative’s decision-making process increase dramatically.

People ask me all the time whether e-mail is an effective means to communicate with Congress. I tell them that the tools citizens use to communicate with their elected representatives are far less important than what they say. As I talk about (some would say ad nauseum) in my book, Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress, the key to being effective in your written communications is ensuring that someone on staff actually thinks about what you have to say. So how do you do that? By being personal, relevant, asking for a response, and reaching the right person.

The Personal Approach: By far, the most compelling and effective letters combine a thoughtful approach to policy issues with a careful explanation of why it’s important to the author personally. In most offices, it is these letters that the member of Congress actually sees, not the letters generated by mass postcard or form letter campaigns. For example, one of the members I worked for routinely asked to see the five to ten most thoughtful, rational letters we received in a week. These letters received much more attention then other less personalized correspondences.

Why Are You Relevant? You are relevant to the Congressional office because you are a constituent or because you represent a constituent, and you can demonstrate that connection by including your postal address on every correspondence, whether it’s e-mail, fax, or traditional letter.

Ask for a Response: Given the limited time and budgets in congressional offices, priority will always be given to letters that require an answer. Asking for a response means someone on the staff has to think about what you’ve said and, in some way, address your concerns or comments.

Reaching the Right Person: Correspondence requesting a meeting or site visit should be sent to the Executive Assistant or Scheduler. Educational and informational correspondence about your program should be sent to both the member and legislative assistant assigned to your issue. You can find out who these people are at www.congress.org.

By following these guidelines, you can dramatically increase the chances that your correspondence will be noticed, whether you send it via e-mail, snail mail, or carrier pigeon!

Will the Internet Make Representational Democracy Obsolete?

But will all this personal, thoughtful letter writing really be necessary in ten years? Some people argue that the Internet heralds a new day for democracy, where people will vote for their representatives and eventually vote on policy issues directly and online. Essentially, Congressional representatives would become obsolete. However, this “ballot-initiative” model of government ignores the most important role that your elected official plays in the process, paying attention to every issue under the sun 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Think about it. Under the direct democracy model, you would be pointing and clicking to cast your vote approximately 900 times a year. That’s over twice a day, every day including weekends. You’d be voting on Permanent Normal Trading Relations for China, the Patient’s Bill of Rights, legislation to promote Digital Signatures, and whether to name the Post Office in Garden City, Kansas after Clifford R. Hope.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that all of these sites are emerging and that some are flowering. The Internet is an important and powerful tool for connecting citizens to their government. But so was the printing press, the telephone, and C-SPAN. It’s what we do with these tools that matter. Content, thoughtful analysis, and personal perspectives still matter. So go ahead and point and click – but follow that up with a thoughtful e-mail, letter or phone call. You’ll be a better citizen and we’ll all have a better Democracy.

Posted in: Features, Lobbying