Bill Pease, Chief Technology Officer, GetActive

Bill Pease, Chief Technology Officer, GetActive

Philanthropy News Digest: What's a logic puzzle, and why should nonprofit organizations be concerned about them?

Bill Pease: A logic puzzle is a test that an individual has to "pass" in order to successfully communicate with his or her elected official. Sometimes the "test" is a slightly distorted image of an alpha-numeric string that an individual is asked to decipher. On the Write Your Rep system it's actually more of a narrative test where you're presented with a simple math or logic problem that you have to answer correctly before you can submit a comment to your elected official. The reason nonprofit organizations need to be concerned about this is that logic puzzles are an arbitrary barrier to constituents who want to communicate with their elected officials. As it is, most members of the House have shut down the public e-mail channel, and there's simply no good reason to force people to jump through hoops before they can communicate with their representative or senator.

PND: House officials argue that representatives receive a huge number of electronic messages and that a sizable percentage of those messages — as many as half, according to a congressional Management Foundation Study — are generated by automatic mail programs. Does Congress have an e-mail problem? And if so, should it be allowed to address that problem with filtering techniques such as logic puzzles?

BP: It's true that, with the widespread adoption of the Internet, Congress is definitely receiving a greater volume of messages from constituents than ever before. That, in turn, has stretched the capacity of congressional staff to manage constituent communications. But there is absolutely no evidence that the majority of those messages are being generated by automatic mail programs. We believe that the majority of the e-mail Congress receives comes from individual citizens who simply want to communicate with their elected officials. The Congressional Management Foundation study you mentioned is more a study of staff perceptions. I don't doubt that, due to the increased volume of e-mail, there are overwhelmed staff members on the Hill who have a negative attitude about constituent communications. But there is no factual basis for the claim that these are automatically generated messages. That simply is not happening.

What Congress really has done is to move from an open embrace of the public e-mail channel to aggressively filtering consituent e-mail through the use of Web forms. Sure, some of that is legitimate — filtering in-bound communications so that representatives only receive communications from individuals who live in their districts, for example. But other types of filtering clearly are not. This goes right to the heart of our First Amendment right to free speech. Americans have the right to be mobilized by nonprofit organizations, and it is absolutely within their constitutional rights to petition Congress to take action on this or that piece of legislation without having to worry about arbitrary e-mail filters.

PND: What is GetActive doing about this, and what do you recommend nonprofits do?

BP: Our clients work with us because we're able to get their constituent communications delivered to Congress. We also have an obligation to work with elected officials on the Hill to set standards with respect to electronic constituent communications and to make sure that everybody complies with those standards. To that end, we've been working behind the scenes with congressional staff to make sure our software is able to submit messages through the various Web-based systems in use on the Hill and to address various barriers to constituent-generated e-mail as different offices roll them out.

As far as the nonprofit community is concerned, if you visit the Web site Dontblockmyvoice.org you'll see that there's a coalition of hundreds of nonprofit organizations of every type and from every part of the political spectrum that are engaged in lobbying efforts to have barriers to constituent e-mail removed. I would encourage any nonprofit organization whose basic mission involves engaging its supporters in the public policy process to consider joining that coalition. The sector needs to speaks with a united voice and tell Congress that it should not treat organizationally mediated communications as spam or a form of second-class communication.

PND: Do you have the sense that folks on the Hill are interested in working with the nonprofit community and vendors like GetActive to find a middle ground that satisfies everyone's needs?

BP: Yes, although it's a qualified yes. I'd say the nonprofit sector is pretty united in its view that these barriers are arbitrary but that some changes in practice are needed to help Congress manage the flood of constituent communications. And the vendor community is absolutely united about the need to have more of a standards-based approach to communicating with Congress. The problem is that the Hill itself isn't really speaking with a unified voice. Each congressional office is free to adopt its own particular communications policy. Not surprisingly, some offices are doing a tremendous job at supporting, encouraging, and managing constituent communication, while others have thrown in the towel and are seeking to drastically reduce or completely block electronic communications from constituents.

PND: How do you expect this debate to shake out?

DB: Well, I think it's going to take about eight months for all the parties involved to agree on a solution. But, you know, it's the Internet age. Corporations have learned how to deal with the increased volume of e-mail and electronic communications. Nonprofits are learning how to use new communication methods to serve their own constituencies and promote their messages. And the same thing has to happen with our elected officials. The very people that politicians are turning away with logic puzzles are often key stakeholders in the political process. They're the thought leaders and influence wielders in their local communities; they're the people who tell friends about political issues; they're the ones who help get out the vote; they're the people who donate to PAC campaigns. These are the people that congressional offices should be cultivating, and I believe that that fact is what ultimately will drive congressional acceptance of a more reasonable, standards-based approach to managing in-bound constituent communications.

— Mitch Nauffts