In an ever-evolving digital age, members of the U.S. Congress are increasingly using technology to communicate with their constituents.
But are they also using virtual communication as a way to avoid face-to-face interaction with the public?
Dr. Jocelyn Evans, associate dean in the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at the University of West Florida and Jessica Hayden, a UWF graduate, address those issues in their book “Congressional Communication in the Digital Age.”
Hayden is a Congressional Fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. Evans previously received the same fellowship while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma. Hayden was a research assistant to Evans while at UWF.
Evans had just published her book “One Nation Under Siege: Congress, Terrorism, and the Fate of American Democracy, which explores the impact of terrorism on Capitol Hill culture. Hayden and Evans shared interest in how the Gabby Giffords’ shooting of 2011 might impact congressional communication with constituents. Rep. Giffords is a former congressional representative from Arizona, who was shot in the head while holding a town hall-style meeting with her constituents in front of a grocery store.
“Members (of Congress) were already kind of psychologically freaked out, because of 9/11 and anthrax and all of that. And when we had a domestic attack of a member at a public event, I anticipated that it would really cause them to close themselves off even more, to build more barriers,” Evans said.
“And so I talked to Jessica and said let’s look and see how members are responding to this based on media accounts, press statements,” Evans said. “What are they doing on their websites? To what extent are they refusing to hold town hall meetings? So that was kind of how we started thinking broadly about access to congressional offices.”
The book stemmed from Hayden’s thesis on the accessibility of congressional websites to constituents. As part of their research, Evans and Hayden reviewed the websites of each member of Congress. Evans said they were fascinated with how congressional websites were being developed to structure communication to and from constituents.
“Part of what congressional websites offer are these automated web forms where instead of emailing a member you just fill out the boxes,” Evans said. “Those include drop down menus for indicating what issues are you writing the member about. Importantly, those are preselected issues.”
Members of Congress also began to use “tele-town halls,” which are conference calls held within their offices, but that can accommodate thousands of listeners, Evans said.
“We did see that those were being used by some members around the time of the Gabby Giffords shooting,” Evans said. “And we anticipated that members would use them more and more.”
Evans noted that in 2009-10, public forums held by Democratic members of Congress were often contentious because of the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Republican lawmakers are now experiencing that same level of vitriol during public meetings they are holding regarding the debate whether to repeal that same law.
That often hostile atmosphere, coupled with potential threats of foreign or domestic terrorism, has made members of Congress “think twice” about holding traditional town hall meetings, Evans said.
“That climate has led members to really structure and control their communication with constituents,” Evans said. “And you see that played out in web design.”
And this control now extends beyond limiting physical access to members. Congressional websites are now often designed to look for similar content in incoming emails, and to kick out those messages, acting much like a spam filter.
That can mean when advocacy groups ask large numbers of people to contact their Congressional representatives about an issue, many of those emails can be discarded and ignored. Some members of Congress’ sites have ZIP code filters that kick out messages from senders who are not residents in their districts.
“I’ve given talks on this to different groups, including people who are really politically engaged, and when I tell them that piece of the story, it really upsets them,” Evans said. “Because they feel like without going to (Washington) D.C. and actually visiting with a member of Congress, they are being disenfranchised.”
Evans and Hayden’s research for the book included a series of interviews with members of Congress and their communication coordinators, as well as some of the different groups who are trying to advise members of Congress how to design their websites.
“We know that they have to institute some market-based practices just to operate the office like a business and be efficient with the overwhelming amount of correspondence they receive on a daily basis. But members are closing themselves off more and more, and the public is sensing that,” Evans said.
“Congressional Communication in the Digital Age” will be available for purchase next month on Amazon.
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.