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Policy 101: Inside the Minds of Congressional Staff

By Russ Harrison

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) is not generally regarded as an interesting organization. Its job is to help members of Congress run their offices more efficiently. Most of the time, the foundation dedicates itself to providing IT and human resources support to legislative offices. It’s important, but not glamorous work.

However, one small part of the CMF’s mission turns out to be very interesting. Over the past ten years, CMF has used its position within the Legislative Branch to conduct research into how Congress behaves, especially how Congress perceives the information it receives from voters. Its research gives us some of the most detailed and reveling information we have on how Congress views constituents. And this, in turn, gives us valuable advice on how to better influence Congress.

The CMF has conducted two similar surveys of Congressional staff — one in 2005 and one this past January. Both were primarily focused on how Congressional staff were coping with the ever increasing volume of communications (phone calls, letters, e-mail and faxes) coming into their offices. The surveys were sent to communications staff and senior staff (Chief of Staffs and Legislative Directors) and were completely anonymous. Responses were statistically significant and roughly reflected the partisan make-up of Congress when they were conducted (the January 2011 survey reflects Congress prior to the November 2010 election).

The 2011 survey can be found here: http://pmpu.org/2011/01/26/perceptions-of-citizen-advocacy-on-capitol-hill/

The 2005 survey can be found here: http://www.cmfweb.org/storage/cmfweb/documents/CMF_Pubs/

One particularly revealing question asked staff which form of communication was most effective. The CMF asked Congressional staffers “If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington Office have on his/her decision?” In other words: will these actions affect how your boss votes? Staffer were asked to indicate which of the following has “a lot” of influence, and which had “some” influence. Selected results are summarized here:

Percent of staff agreeing in 2005


Percent of staff agreeing in 2011

As you can see, the results are broadly consistent across the two surveys. Among the conclusions we can draw from the two surveys are:

  • Visits from voters trump everything. The best way to influence a member of Congress is to meet them (or their staff) face to face. Personal visits received the highest overall score and the highest “a lot” score in both surveys.

  • Actual voters trump representatives from voters. Congress likes to talk to people who hold leadership positions within their states or districts. Business owners, church elders and IEEE Section Leaders can speak for many voters at once, making their communications valuable. But not quite as valuable as speaking with voters themselves. The difference between the two results is most notable in the “a lot” responses, where community leaders do notably worse than actual voters.

  • Lobbyists count, but not much. Legislative staff listens to lobbyists, but not nearly as much as they listen to their voters. Of course, if no voters speak up, the lobbyists win by default.

  • Staff doesn’t like form letters, but read them anyway. Form letters are letters written by advocacy groups and then signed by voters. Staff clearly value these letters less than letters written by the voters themselves, but still read and react to the form letters most of the time.

The form letter results are especially interesting, because the results from 2005 are significantly different than the results from 2011. Over those six years, form letters have become 14 percent less influential. The percentage of staff who consider form letters has dropped from almost two-thirds to just over half. It is important for us to understand the reason for this precipitous drop in support, both to avoid wasting our time by sending messages that don’t do any good and because this gives us an important lesson in how to communicate with politicians.

The answer to the drop in support for form letters (and similar drops for form e-mail and faxes) can, I think, be found in a second question asked in the 2011 CMF survey.

More than half of congressional staff believe that there is a good chance that form letters are fraudulent. No wonder the influence of form letters has declined in the past seven years. Why would staff give these communications much weight, when they think the messages may be fakes? While fraudulent form letters are probably not all that prevalent on Capitol Hill, there have been a few well-publicized instances where they have appeared, so staff have reasons for their doubts. [1]

 This concern over fraudulent form letters can be used to your advantage. It is clear from the surveys that members of Congress value communications with their voters, but want to know that it is authentic before accepting it. By providing this authentication, you can easily make your letter or e-mail stand out. Authentication could be any information about you or the issue in your letter that advocacy groups cannot know, including:

  • A quick description of your profession

  • Mentioning your neighborhood

  • References to your local community, especially how the issue you are writing about will impact your local community.

Anything that identifies you as the author of the letter will work. Just remember: while this needs to be included, it isn’t the point of your letter, so do it fast. One or two sentences will be fine, while still keeping your letter to just one page.

The CMF has provided us with useful insights into how Congressional staff thinks. Its results demonstrate that staff, and their bosses, value communications from their constituents, so long as they know those messages are genuine. As our political system becomes increasingly dominated by professional lobbyists, advocates and campaign specialists, Legislators still need to understand their voters. The CMF survey suggests that the professionals are actually making it harder for our political leaders to know what their voters are thinking.

This makes sincere, authentic communications from real voters increasingly valuable and, therefore, powerful.


 [1.] Fahrenthold, David. “Lobby Shop Says Ex-Staffer Forged Letter to Lawmaker.” Washington Post. August 1, 2009. Pg. A2.



Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s Senior Legislative Representative for Grassroots Affairs.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2011 IEEE

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