I was on Capitol Hill Monday morning attending the "Ready-Made Constituent Relationships: A Look at How Technology Empowers and Enables Effective Constituent Relationship Management" presentation hosted by George Washington University's Institute for Politics & The Internet (IPDI).

While the presentation covered a broad range of constituent services, the main focus was e-mail, which is a more efficient medium of communication than snail mail. The panelists emphasized that a constituent that sends an e-mail uses virtually immediate communication, but most of the time a staff will respond weeks later, if at all, using a regular letter.  Why can't a constituent get a reply much sooner?  One of the answers is interesting.  There is a strong aversion to responding to constituent e-mail with e-mail from Capitol Hill.

I'll acknowledge that there are some valid concerns surrounding e-mail.  For instance, many politicians fret over the possibility that someone will tamper with a message and send it to many other people with the politician listed as the sender.  Also, what happens if a committed constituent becomes a pen pal?  Certainly staffers' time is better spent responding to as many people as possible, and e-mail facilitates such a relationship.

In response the panelists emphasized that e-mail is here to stay and that it would likely continue to burgeon in volume as more tech savvy voters come of age.  Thus, they urge Congress to embrace e-mailing constituents — beyond e-newsletters — and use a CRM (Customer Constituent Relationship Management) system that can analyze each e-mail and dynamically reply with a tailored response by culling content from a database of the politician's campaign material, speeches, and other material generated already.  This will free up staff and the franking fund to focus on other matters — like snail mail — while efficiently responding to more constituents. 

This seems interesting to me.  While the efficiency of such a response system appeals to the computer oriented professional in me, the constituent in me has some doubts. 

Of course, many of the staffers in attendance — who are all swamped by constituent mail — seemed open to salvation from at least e-mail hell, but does that partially shut constituents who send e-mail out of the loop?  Granted, the politician reads a miniscule portion of his or her mail while the volume prevents interns and staffers from constructively acting upon most communication, but one would hope that all mail sent to a congressional office is at least read by someone.  

Unless a staff with an automatic e-mail response system actually reads the messages — even after a tailored reply is sent, how will people know that an e-mail has a chance of reaching human eyes?  I'm sure that a system can flag certain key words in a message for special attention or could generate a report of issues most mentioned in constituent e-mail, but such actions cannot capture the essence of a message.  Further, if a constituent takes the time to draft a message or visit an advocacy or trade group site to generate one, such effort deems the dignity of at least the momentary attention of an intern. 

After the presentation I also spoke with two IPDI staffers about encouraging constituents to use e-mail (kind of like the IRS and e-filing) after staffs have implemented a sufficient CRM system.  They mentioned that a staff should explicitly reassure that they'll more likely get a response from an e-mail — even if it is computer generated.  I agree.

However, I feel it is important to emphasize that someone should always read constituent e-mail.  This may hinder the amount of constituents a staff contacts, but it is not like people who send a message to their representatives expect more than a form letter, if that, in response.  Perhaps the chance that a message will get read is enough for some.

Ultimately, technology cannot and should not remove human interaction — however impersonal — from constituent relationships.