A message to an officeholder can travel by very different modes to get to its final destination. There’s no clear-cut intake process from one chamber to the next, or at the local, state, or federal levels of government.
The intake process relies on the preference of the legislator and how she or he rates constituent communications. But assigning a value to each correspondence or points based on scoring by trained staff isn’t ideal when it comes to constituent communications. Moreover, rejecting form messaging altogether limits the input of some activists and groups.
Advocacy technology is improving and so should the intake process inside government. Communications can be filtered, and constituents versus non-constituents can be identified in most cases. This is an acceptable and necessary barrier between constituent and an elected official.
Staff serve a valuable role in filtering and processing this information. The volume issue has made this task even more challenging and a few bad apples trying to game the system hasn’t helped the overall constituent intake process run any smoother in recent years.
Now, it’s impossible to respond to all constituents without some type of automation in the shape of a “form message.” If we find it acceptable for an elected official to send an automated communication back to the constituent, why not allow receipt of the same?
For those sending messages to elected officials, it’s commonplace in most research and most commentary in the advocacy conference circuit that form letters aren’t the most effective means of advocating for a position. But certain groups have invested a lot of money, time, and resources in building a grassroots army.
They tactically hope to leverage their numbers to exert influence over the legislative process. Someone that signs a petition walking out of the subway is still invoking efficacy and rendering a political opinion. Someone that fills in their personal information to send a form message to Congress is also taking that first step on the ladders of engagement.
Nearly everyone can agree that an authentic message written by a constituent is the gold standard for electronic advocacy communication. For a variety of reasons, many Americans won’t take the extra time to write an email or letter to Congress that is purely genuine or without the talking points of an organization that they support.
Dismissing a form letter altogether or ranking it with a zero score doesn’t account for the initiative taken by the advocate to express their views on an issue. These people are engaging at the most basic level, aren’t apolitical, and in many cases, are heeding the advice and strategy of organizations that they support.
A core function of associations is to provide advocacy strategy and that may translate into creating an action alert with a form letter and succinct talking points. This strategic decision to choose a form message by the association shouldn’t result in penalizing advocates who responded by dismissing their opinion altogether.
The crux of the argument is that constituent communication is a complicated process where it’s unacceptable to neglect form messaging all together because of volume issues. That’s a mistake. This is still a widespread grassroots tactic and one that can be used to build and train advocates to step up into more intensive advocacy roles further along in the legislative process.
Joshua Habursky is assistant vice president of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections and an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.