In March and April we ran an experiment to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress. Yesterday I took a trip down to Capitol Hill to deliver the letter to Members of Congress.
Our first experiment with group writing resulted in opposing collaboratively written by 450 people and then later signed by over 3,000 people. We took on this experiment because Congress can’t keep up with the volume of letters it receives. We wanted to try a novel way of aggregating voices, without using a simple petition. I wrote about this more and . The process used the writing tool , where participants have three tasks: writing letters from scratch, remixing the content from letters written by other users, and rating the letters and remixes to pick the best one. I chose to start the experiment on a single issue, and a single side of the issue, because I knew that there was a critical mass of visitors to GovTrack that would want to contribute to such a letter. By no means does GovTrack endorse the content of the letter.
As part of the experiment, I promised the participants that I would deliver the top-rated letter to Members of Congress in person. (Mind you, I live in Philadelphia.) I met up with David Stern, the co-founder of MixedInk, in front of the Cannon House Office Building, one of the buildings where congressmen have their offices:
MixedInk’s David Stern in front of Cannon House Office Building
I picked out nine congressmen to bring the letter to: the bill’s sponsor Bobby Rush, the chair and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee where the bill was referred to (that’s John Conyers and Lamar Smith), the chair and ranking member of the Crime subcommittee where the bill was referred to (that’s Bobby Scott and Louie Gohmert), and then the congressmen from the four districts that gathered the most number of signatures in the petition phase of the project (Todd Tiahrt and Peter DeFazio with 36 signatures, and John Boozman and Greg Walden with 32 signatures). Their offices are spread over three buildings, so we had a lot of walking to do. And we made some bad turns in the buildings a few times too. It took a while.
In delivering the letter we had two goals in mind.
First, we delivered a letter you wrote. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories in their district.
Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group letter. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? In each office we asked to speak with an “LC”, a legislative correspondent whose job is to manage constituent communications in the office, or an “LA”, a legislative assistant who works on policy matters. We ended up speaking to two LCs, one LA, and some low-level staff. Their reactions were pretty much the same. Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition that is how they saw it. We didn’t collect the names and addresses of the 451 people that actually contributed writing the letter, unfortunately — and with only 451 people spread across the whole country, that doesn’t make for a very strong petition in any given district.
If 3,000 people contributed to writing the letter itself, things might have been different.
So the moral here is that a group letter on this scale is probably not going to be seen any differently from a petition by congressional offices. It’s a good way to get a group to come to a consensus on a letter, but it’s not necessarily a more effective or efficient way to contact Congress.
[Update: Comments below on the merits of gun control will not be accepted. This isn’t the place to argue that point.]