Friday, August 27, 2010
With so many ways to talk to government, why do Americans feel like we're not being heard?

In February, Rasmussen Reports released a poll that found that only 21% of Americans feel that their government has their consent.  This is despite the fact that we have more communications channels with our government than any time in American History.  So how do we fix this?

There are three solutions: first, we need to use all our available communications channels; second, we need to communicate in a way that the government can act on; third, we need to find the most effective government officials to talk to.

1. Using all our available communications channels.

How are people trying to get in touch with their government?  Mostly by sending emails and (to a much lesser extent) letters to their representatives.  Increasingly, however, social media is taking the place of traditional communications channels.  

Recently, a former Hill staffer created GovSM, an online directory of elected officials' social media sites.  Currently, the site lists the Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and RSS feeds for each representative, senator, governor, and house committee.  The site's owners plan to add entries for each candidate as well.

This is exactly the kind of tool that citizen 2.0 should keep in their browser's bookmark bar.  It enables people to find all the channels through which they can communicate with their legislators.

2. Communicating in a way that our government can act on.

The Congressional Management Foundation reports that members of the House received an average of 220,000 emails in 2004.  Senators received an average of 830,000.  To read all those emails, House members would need 29 staffers dedicated to nothing else, and senators would need 108.  As a point of comparison, House Members employ an average of 14 staff; the Senate average is 34. To help both legislators and their constituents, another former Hill staffer is creating a tool called Popvox.  Set to launch this fall, Popvox was created because (in the words of its founder):

"[T]he increasing emails, tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. did not help the public’s message get through.  On the contrary, the ever-louder noise decreases the effectiveness of traditional advocacy tools. . . .  online petitions  are increasingly ineffective [at getting a message to Congress]"

Popvox’s owners say in conversation that their site will enable citizens to present their views on policy matters in a standardized format that is understandable, quantifiable, and ultimately actionable.

3. Finding the most effective government officials.

It's natural for people to think of the legislative branch in general and their representatives in particular when they think about "communicating with the government."  But while the legislature writes the overarching laws of what should be done, and within what time frame--as well as what is prohibited--it is the executive branch agencies that actually implement programs, disburse money, and perform the front-line review and analysis necessary for transparency.

Where are the tools we need to communicate with them?

True, many high-level bureaucrats from various agencies are now on Twitter.  While agencies are doing their best to use social media as another broadcast medium, few are maximizing their potential as a listening outpost.  As an example, the USDA’s Twitter feed mainly features links to its blog, YouTube videos, and press releases; this is a great start, but they could do so much more.  Agencies hold many public hearings that could be augmented through the intelligent use of digital and social media.  Think how social media could enhance:

Below is a composite of select agencies’ social media portals, taken from their home pages.  The placement of the “get connected” or “stay connected” or “toolbox” feature, as the Department of Labor calls it, varies greatly from agency to agency, as does the treatment on the page.  For example, the Justice Department desaturates the icons and places them in the lower right column; DOD places the icons in buttons as part of the left navigation; HUD houses themin the upper right of the screen; and HHS seems not to have a link to its social media sites, though it does prominently display its RSS feeds and links to its audio and video assets.

Alone among the agencies, the State Department actually pulls in its Twitter feed, so prospective subscribers can see what they’re likely to read (and State’s homepage is constantly refreshed).

When people can find agencies’ social media sites (perhaps through something like GovSM) and then talk to them (perhaps through something like Popvox) they’re more likely to feel like their government is listening.  And they’ll be right.