Logic puzzles and democracy

There’s been a bit of a bruhaha in the nonprofit eAdvocacy world lately over Congress adding a new “feature” to their webforms which require human interaction in an online form before you can send your elected an email message. Capwiz has a letter on their site that explains the issue and what they’re doing about it. GetActive is also on top of it. I’m not sure what Kintera or Convio or other e-advocacy platforms are doing.

Why is Congress doing this? Because it’s a bit too easy for organizations, ours included, to generate hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of emails to them through automated systems like the one we use through GetActive. It’s not one person sending all these messages. That would be “spam” and unfair. It’s all these individuals sending a message each. The systems are designed so if you’ve sent the message once, you can’t send it again…it’s tied to your email address (and your home address). So it is individuals who live in a constituency expressing their opinion, they’re just doing it in a more convenient way than writing a letter from scratch.

In a nutshell, the problem is that Congressional offices don’t have the infrastructure to deal with large volumes of email. So they either attempt to deal with each email and devote resources they don’t have or they throw them all out. Neither is an ideal solution. So instead of addressing the problem for what it is, some legislators have decided to see those emails as “spam” and they are putting in measures to require individuals to go one-at-a-time to their website, enter their text, enter their contact info, enter the answer to the logic puzzle and send. I don’t have a problem with that, per se. I’d rather get 50 people to send an email that will be counted than get 50,000 people to send emails that will be trashed.

As someone who encourages others to advocate for an issue, I don’t think it makes the issue any less valid if someone uses our One Minute Advocate to send the email versus if they sent it through a legislator’s webform or called and read the contents of a letter over the phone. Personally, I am selective about the communication I have with my legislators. I don’t take action on every email alert that lands in my box. I contact my electeds on issues that matter to me and I think are important enough to let my voice be heard. That’s not spam. That’s me using the ease of today’s technology to help my voice be counted. I don’t like the thought that voices are muted due to gaps in adapting to technology.

As an organization, C3 encourages advocates to build relationships with electeds and we ask for action carefully. In the last action alert we sent out, we urged folks to make phone calls and gave them a step-by-step personalized script to do it…it wasn’t just about sending an email.

NTEN has a good entry on the subject:

Now I am going to speak heresy: I think what we (the collective we) have done of the past few years has been to introduce VOLUME (and by volume I mean quantity) into the discussion, but we have not substantially given the people any more voice. Perhaps more people are involved and politicized — and that’s a good thing — but the unintended consequence has been that we have so devalued the available communications channels that they are worthless.

I think he’s right. But Congress is in a hell of their own making since the message we get consistently is that volume matters. What do the poll numbers say? How many people are affected by an issue? Elected leaders tend to pay attention to those who make the most noise, and that doesn’t matter if it’s a school board or the President of the United States. As the conversation in the room gets louder, if you want to be heard you have to shout above the rest. The fire hose points to the flame that is about to do the most damage. I said earlier that I’d rather get 50 people to send an email that will be counted than 50,000 that won’t, but the reality of the here and now is that we, as an organization and as a movement, aren’t counted by the quality of our interactions we’re judged by the quantity. The reality is that there are a few people who answer the phone or read email in these offices we’re trying to reach and the most impassioned individual plea doesn’t always count as much as a whole lot of noise.

More from NTEN:

When I say indulgences, I mean we make it easy to assuage our outrage, and in the end, that outrage is impotent — just go to this web site and click this link to send a letter to your congressperson. Now you’re done, you’re sins are absolved. We have linked action to information, we have succeeded in educating someone about an issue, or bill, or latest attack on our privacy or civil liberties, but we’ve also succeeded in channeling that action nowhere, defusing that outrage by clicking a button with no real effect.

If I know the world is going to end tomorrow, does that make me better off than the person who doesn’t know if there’s nothing I can do about it anyway? What’s the alternative? Ignorance? What is happening now is that Congress has the potential to listen to a wider audience…not just the people who show up, but they can listen to the guy who works two jobs, they can listen to the 60 year-old cancer patient who isn’t leaving her home. Why is the burden on the individual or the organization to modify communications to fit an outdated mold? Organizations allow people with a common interest to educate each other and make sure that what matters is not brushed away. Breast cancer advocates tell tales of how they used to get handfuls of folks to camp out in front of offices to get what they wanted. I’m not sure that would work anymore.

This is the way people are communicating nowadays. Deal with it. How about instead of sending individual replies, send a letter to the organization acknowledging that you heard from N number of constituents on the issue and this is the position you take? It’s a form letter anyway. Send out one instead of 500. Then put the burden on the organization to get the response back to the constituents. We honestly don’t expect an individual form letter each and every time. We just want to know where you stand and that you heard our concern on the issue.

The people are talking. The messages are valid. Congress just has to figure out a new way of listening.