Sunday, June 25, 2006


'Captchas' are not for Congress

A few days after Congressional offices began to adopt “logic puzzle,” a new way to block email campaigns organized by nonprofits and political groups, Micah Sifry posted a note and Allyson Kapin started to blog on it here.

Last week, the nonprofit community answered with a resounding “No”! Almost all the nonprofits see this in terms of our basic constitutional right to freely petition government—and agree that blocking software must go.

On Monday of last week, more than 100 major organizations—including the nation’s largest conservative and liberal groups like,,, the American Family Association, Consumers Union and many more—faxed a letter to Congress opposing logic puzzle. Within 24 hours the leading groups began to hear back from Congressional staff.

A small number of Congressional offices—including Dingell and Roybal-Allard—turned off this blocking tool and we expect more to follow. This is an excellent first step, although I quickly learned that some Congressional staff hold surprising ideas about the email messages they get.

First, many staffers actually believe that nonprofit organizations send messages to Congress on behalf of our members without their permission. They believe we sign our members’ names to messages and send them in mass ourselves. The evidence for this—a few people, after getting a reply from the Representative’s office, said that they never sent a message on this topic. And staffers also thought it strange that a few people send lots and lots of messages on behalf of one or more groups.

To help us respond to these kinds of comments—please take a moment to take this quick survey! Do you regularly send messages from an organizational website? Do you like to send the standard message? Do you communicate more than you would if you had to go to each lawmaker's website and write your comments there? Congressional offices need to hear from you!

There are a handful of predictable ways that individuals could be confused by the reply they get from legislative offices. For example, my partner might take an action through my email account and not bother to switch the personal information, then I get a response about something I don’t remember doing. I personally take so many actions that I don’t remember them all. I have, from time to time, received a standardized response back so tenuously related to my original comment that I had trouble putting two and two together.

For the most part, there’s no evidence that any nonprofit—and certainly none of the major groups accounting for most of the organized email communication to Congress—signs peoples’ names on letters to Congress without their explicit permission. At a basic level, we need to educate Congressional staff about the systems we use and the activities our members take on our systems before a message is sent. Last year’s report by the Congressional Management Foundation, a research organization, identified this misunderstanding by staffers but did little to address it because they only surveyed staff and not the nonprofit community primarily generating the traffic.

That said, a real problem for legislative offices is the ever increasing volume of email. The Internet has expanded civic participation by making it far easier for busy Americans to express their views to Congress through organizations they join for that purpose. That is a good thing.

As a practical matter, it has increased the overall volume of communications. That too can be a good thing if it is well managed. Congressional offices have more information about their constituents—and their constituents’ views—than ever before. They can use that information to improve their constituent relationships. But the increase in volume has outpaced the ability of office staff to adjust—so at a very basic level some hit a wall and just want to turn it off. Clearly that is the wrong approach, but nonprofits can take an active roll in finding a solution that works for everyone.

One simple starting point—a standard message could be “bundled.” Instead of 20,000 separate messages, our systems could deliver the letter once along with all the signing individual information attached. That way the legislative offices know how many people sent the message, who they are and where they live. They can use the contact information to effectively respond by email or paper letter. All the messages carefully personalized by our members would continue to be delivered individually. That would immediately highlight for staff all the individual messages that should be looked at more carefully because our members may have included their personal story or other facts for consideration. Currently Congressional office websites are not set up to receive information this way, but they could be.

The many nonprofits who signed the letter to Congress have started to formalize as a coalition in order to move forward with real proposals for better constituent communication systems that ensure the delivery of all the messages. Visit and either send a direct message to Congress yourself or sign on your nonprofit organization to the coalition. More than 15,000 individuals have already asked their own Representatives not to use “logic puzzle” and we expect tens of thousands more in the coming days. Let’s not turn back the clock on democracy!

I think the "bundling" idea is an excellent one. Legislators need to know that these are legitimate constituent communications. At the same time, we need to recognize that systems setup for postal cards and mail aren't scaling well to the volumes enabled by the net.

This would be especially helpful if the bundling provided assurance that the person is in district, and helped highlight personal comments versus the canned boilerplate.

I'd like to see this situation address through joint discussion between legislative offices, citizen groups, and software developers.

I don't think saying "remove the logic puzzle" is realistic. After all, I'm being forced to do a "captcha" to enter this comment.
Hi Chip! Thanks for the comment. I agree that the most important thing at this point is to work with Congressional offices on a long term solution that ensures delivery of messages but provides them in a way that staffers can sort and use. Separating standard messages from personalized ones is critical, along with identifying constituents and providing data about them in a format that staffers can more easily use to send responses. We also want to talk to staffers about the way those standardized messages get to them, so they understand and feel comfortable that a "canned" message is still a message from their constituent, intentionally sent as part of that person's knowing participation in a larger group effort. In a relatively short time, I hope this effort will result in changes that improve staffer's lives and improve democratic communication with Congress.
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