Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by Samantha McDonald, Ph.D. Candidate in Informatics, University of California, Irvine

Big technology companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google aren’t the only ones facing huge political concerns about using citizen data[1]: So is Congress. Reports by congressional researchers over the last decade describe an outdated communication system[2] that is struggling to address an overwhelming rise in citizen contact[3].

Every day, thousands of people contact their senators and representatives[4]. Their intentions – protesting or supporting a politician or legislative proposal, seeking assistance with the federal bureaucracy or expressing their opinions about current affairs – vary as widely as their means of communication, which include phones, written letters, emails, in-person meetings, town halls, faxes and social media messages.

The Congressional Management Foundation suggests that most congressional offices saw constituent contact double[5] – or even increase eight-fold – from 2002 to 2010. Current staffers say the numbers have climbed even higher since then. Congressional staffers spend hours listening, reading, collecting and organizing[6] all this information. All of it ends up going into databases in their offices.

As a scholar of technology use in Congress, I’ve interviewed more than 50 staffers in more than 40 congressional offices[7]. I’ve observed that advancements in computer technology are changing how Congress handles citizen communication and uses the data collected from those conversations to represent citizens – for better and for worse.

An overloaded system

No matter why or how people contact their elected officials, they all want one basic thing: They want someone to listen. But what actually happens is something different. As one staffer explained to me: “They want their voices to be heard, and it’s me entering their info into a database.”

When a constituent calls a congressional office, the staff member answering the phone collects personal information – the caller’s name, their address and why they’re calling. The address is important, because it can confirm the person is actually a resident of the congressional district. Congress has been logging this sort of data for decades[8], but the number of constituents seeking to contact their elected representatives has grown immensely and is overwhelming congressional systems.

For example, one democratic staffer told me that in 2017, as Republicans took up efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act[9], often known as Obamacare, their office received 200 phone calls a day – with only one intern answering the phone. The only way to handle so many calls was to tally people’s views as “for” or “against” the current proposal. There was no time to track anything else. This is the new normal for Congress – which is understaffed and underprepared to substantively listen.

Focusing on numbers, not people

Too much attention to data[10] can cause problems in a representative democracy. Each representative has an average of 710,000 constituents[11] – so aggregating and tallying views of citizens can be an attractive solution. But each of those people has their own story. With staffers’ focus on collecting data, the emotional stories that drive citizens to speak up are often lost[12].

Imagine a caller contacting their member of Congress about the ACA who has an overall view of the bill, but also has a personal connection to one of its details – such as a college-age child who might lose coverage, or a preexisting medical condition.

More often than not, that caller’s opinion will end up labeled as either “for” or “against” the whole bill – not, for instance, “against” this part of it, but “for” that part of it. The problem isn’t that members of Congress and their staffs don’t care – they care quite a lot – it’s that they don’t have the capacity to truly listen.

By turning contact from citizens into data points, Congress reduces what it can learn about its constituents and what they want. But this contact is important. It is the single most consistent predictor[13] of which constituents policymakers pay attention to in their district – putting issues on the radar for the future. Data changes those perceptions, by emphasizing the numbers as an efficient means of understanding.

How Congress turns citizens' voices into data points In 1963, most constituent contact came by letter. Other methods have expanded citizens’ options, and helped them comment more often. AP Photo/John Rous[14]

Further complications

The databases not only oversimplify constituents’ views – they leave out large groups of Americans.

More often than not, the people who contact their members of Congress are white, educated and wealthy[15]. The database information is easy to analyze, so it’s tempting to assume it accurately represents wider public opinion. But it doesn’t.

There are also other major concerns. Many of these databases are designed based on business practices, making Congress treat citizens more like customers[16] to satisfy than collaborators in policymaking.

This is causing staff roles to change from gatekeepers of citizen voices to underpaid database administrators and customer relations personnel. Staff spend hours, and sometime days, logging, organizing and tracking citizen information for the database. This is a huge amount of time and labor that could be better utilized elsewhere to understand constituent views.

As the practices of collecting and logging citizen contact continues to grow[17], Congress needs to think critically about what this data and these data collection practices are doing to representatives’ relationships with citizens[18]. Citizens will have limited ability to influence policymakers without such critical conversations.

Technology doesn’t change the political realities of what is already happening in Congress, but it often reinforces and amplifies what is already happening in society[19].

Changing how Congress uses and tracks citizen data needs to be connected to larger conversations about what it means for the government to listen to constituents and involve them in policymaking. This can drive innovative technology that promotes higher-quality forms of constituent engagement.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day.[20] ]


  1. ^ political concerns about using citizen data (
  2. ^ outdated communication system (
  3. ^ struggling to address an overwhelming rise in citizen contact (
  4. ^ thousands of people contact their senators and representatives (
  5. ^ constituent contact double (
  6. ^ spend hours listening, reading, collecting and organizing (
  7. ^ I’ve interviewed more than 50 staffers in more than 40 congressional offices (
  8. ^ logging this sort of data for decades (
  9. ^ Republicans took up efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (
  10. ^ Too much attention to data (
  11. ^ average of 710,000 constituents (
  12. ^ often lost (
  13. ^ the single most consistent predictor (
  14. ^ AP Photo/John Rous (
  15. ^ white, educated and wealthy (
  16. ^ treat citizens more like customers (
  17. ^ the practices of collecting and logging citizen contact continues to grow (
  18. ^ relationships with citizens (
  19. ^ it often reinforces and amplifies what is already happening in society (
  20. ^ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. (

Authors: Samantha McDonald, Ph.D. Candidate in Informatics, University of California, Irvine

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Blane Ferguson - avatar Blane Ferguson

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Digital - avatar Metropolitan Digital

Metropolitan Business News

Office Cleaner Takes Ownership of the Neglected Dishwasher

In an office that a dishwasher is being used communally, it is pretty difficult to set rules on how a certain appliance needs to be taken cared of. A dishwasher is a responsibility of no one until you...

News Company - avatar News Company

Amazing tips to become a successful trader

Everyone is working very hard to secure their financial freedom. Most of the people find it hard to support their family even after having a 9-5 day job. For this very reason, people often look for ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Practice For Young Professionals Working Through HR Internships

The industry of human relations is vitally important to the health and prosperity of a business.   Whether they are operating in textile manufacturing, accounting, sports, IT development or hospit...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Easy Steps To Gaining SEO Momentum For Your Business

SEO (search engine optimisation) does not have to be a tiresome and overbearing exercise that diverts attention away from the core functions of a business.   SEO Shark affirms this as a smart and ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Manage An SEO Project On Limited Funds

SEO operators don’t need thousands upon thousands of dollars to become successful.   What SEO practitioners needs more than ever is the skills and diligence to identify problems that are acting a...

News Company - avatar News Company

An Introduction To Coworking For Australian Business Owners

Advancing technology is bringing with it great advantages in communications and networking, and to survive in business you need to keep up. With the rate at which everything changes these days, that...

News Company - avatar News Company


New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt


SKYN®, Australia’s best-selling condom*, today launches its very first SKYN® Places of Intimacy Guide.   Curated in partnership with GQ Magazine and Conde Nast, the Guide features 30 lux...

SKYN - avatar SKYN