12 Years Of Research Show Most Effective Method Of Influencing Congress
Above Photo: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
Report includes 12 years of research, incorporating feedback from more than 1,200 Congressional staffers.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, congressional staffers find citizen voices influence lawmakers.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) released a new report today outlining the degree of influence that citizens have on congressional decision-making. The research in “Citizen-Centric Advocacy: The Untapped Power of Constituent Engagement” is the most comprehensive ever produced on citizen engagement with Congress, and outlines where and how citizens’ voices influence lawmakers’ decision-making. Recently, Congress has seen unprecedented citizen engagement, with phone lines tied up for hours and voicemails full with constituents’ comments. This report, derived from surveys of Congress over a 12-year period, resulting in more than 1,200 responses from congressional staffers, outlines the ongoing feedback loop between Congress and constituent, and details the most effective means of making one’s voice heard in Washington.
A PDF of “Citizen-Centric Advocacy: The Untapped Power of Constituent Engagement” is available at: http://www.congressfoundation.org/citizen-centric-advocacy-2017.
According to a July 2016 Rasmussen surveyOpens a New Window., only 11 percent of the voters surveyed thought Members of Congress listen to the constituents they represent. Yet, as this report shows, when congressional staff were asked what advocacy factors influence an “undecided” lawmaker, 94 percent said “in-person issue visits from constituents” would have some or a lot of influence and 92 percent said “individualized email messages” from constituents would. Despite the haranguing of mainstream media to the contrary, and popular culture insisting that citizen voices are muted in Washington, the report shows that constituents remain significant factors to legislators’ decision-making.
“Right now we’re seeing more citizens contact Congress than ever before – an unprecedented outpouring of political activism. It’s important that Americans know that Congress is listening – and understand the best way of making their voices heard,” said Bradford Fitch, President and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “This report is the culmination of more than a decade of research drawn from the feedback more than 1,200 congressional staffers, and should be the starting point for any citizen looking to change Washington.”
The report made the following key findings:
- Direct constituent interactions have more influence on lawmakers’ decisions than other advocacy strategies. In three surveys of congressional staff over a 10-year span, 99 percent (2004), 97 percent (2010), and 94 percent (2015) said that “in-person visits from constituents” would have “some” or “a lot” of influence on an undecided lawmaker.
- Congress places a high value on groups and citizens who have built relationships with the legislator and staff. In an era where mass email campaigns are easier and less expensive to conduct, congressional staff report they place a higher value on those constituents and organizations that engage in repeated, more interactive, and substantive communications and meetings. When asked what advocacy groups should do more of to build relationships with the office, 79 percent of staff surveyed said “meet or get to know the Legislative Assistant with jurisdiction over their issue area” and 62 percent said “meet or get to know the District/State Director.”
- Citizen advocates are more influential and contribute to better public policy when they provide personalized and local information to Congress. Nine out of ten (91 percent) congressional staffers surveyed said it would be helpful to have “information about the impact the bill/issue would have on the district or state.” However, only nine percent report they receive that information frequently. Similarly, 79 percent said a personal story from a constituent related to the bill or issue would be helpful, but only 18 percent report they receive it frequently.
- Citizens have significant potential to enhance their advocacy skills and influence Congress. CMF discovered a significant gap between typical constituents compared to those citizens who studied advocacy techniques and practiced what they had learned. In 2015 and 2016, CMF and Feeding America trained 44 food bank employees from around the U.S. After concluding 40 hours of training and role-playing (conducted over four months), the food bank citizen-advocates conducted meetings with Members and congressional staff. CMF surveyed those offices they met with and compared the findings to a previous survey CMF had conducted assessing the skills of “typical” constituents. Whereas 12 percent of congressional staff report that the typical constituent they meet with is “very prepared,” 97 percent of the staff reported that training participants were “very prepared” for the meetings.
The report also outlines lessons for advocacy organizations, including:
- Organizations should embrace a citizen-centric advocacy model. This research suggests groups should refocus their energies on their citizen-supporters. By placing the citizen at the center of their strategy (as opposed to a once-a-year tactic during fly-ins) groups will build stronger bonds between their causes and Congress. With citizens integrated into the heart of advocacy efforts, Congress will be able to better understand and appreciate the impact of their decisions on constituents affected by those decisions.
- Organizations should embrace relationship building as a metric for success to augment other measurements. While email campaigns are still useful in advocacy efforts, especially when citizens take time to personalize the message, this research suggests that a variety of strategies are now required to foster long-term relationships between lawmakers and citizens. Relationship-building metrics are a more accurate reflection of progress in grassroots advocacy; and therefore, advocacy groups should seek solutions to overcome organizational challenges that prevent the collection and usage of relationship-building metrics.
- Organizations should invest time to teach citizen-advocates. As key players in the public policy process, grassroots organizations have a responsibility to help their supporters understand their important role in democracy. Facilitators of grassroots advocacy need to increase and diversify their training programs and make citizen-advocacy an important part of their relationship with their supporters, members, or employees. CMF recognizes that this requires organizational buy-in and a shift in resources, but its research shows the immense value of that investment to organizations’ advocacy efforts and to our democratic process.
The research is part of CMF’s Partnership for a More Perfect Union, a program to help citizens have better communications, understanding, and relationships with Members of Congress. The report was sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and Broadnet.