BROOKE GLADSTONE: E-mail. It's changing the world, revolutionizing communication, re-defining democracy -- the only problem is no one's cc'd the U.S. Congress. A recent study conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and the George Washington University shows that members of the Senate and the House routinely ignore and misunderstand e-mail. Joining me now is Rick Shapiro, and he's the executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. Welcome to On the Media, Rick.
RICK SHAPIRO: Glad to be here!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how bad is it?
RICK SHAPIRO: Well, we, we think it's creating a communications crisis in Congress because there are - there is a public that is expecting rapid responses to their e-mail and not receiving them, and there's a Congress that's expecting the public to be much more understanding of their limitations and is getting frustrated that they're not. And so there really is a need to, to - for both sides to really change their expectations and their practices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So specifically what are you seeing - members of Congress aren't reading the e-mail -they're, they're junking them? They're ignoring them?
RICK SHAPIRO: We're seeing a couple of problems. First, when they're getting e-mails from non-constituents - from people outside their district or state, they are simply ignoring them, and that's the large majority of e-mails that congressional offices are receiving. And so you have a concerned citizen out there in the public who's written an e-mail and said I'm very concerned about this issue. You're the lead senator on this issue, and they're getting no response whatsoever, and they're frustrated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We sent an e-mail to every senator - everyone except for Ben Nighthorse Campbell who didn't accept any e-mail and 30 senators who said they'd only respond to constituents. The e-mail we sent was one line. It said please support legislation to ban bear traps. We received only 30 responses, some up to a week after we sent the original e-mail; none addressed the issue of bear traps. Almost all said they'd respond only by the U.S. mail! One senator, Herb Cole of Wisconsin cited security constraints as a reason he couldn't respond. What constraints?
RICK SHAPIRO: When you survey or talk to congressional offices, there is a strong common view that e-mail will be tampered with and therefore congressional offices should respond with a hard copy letter and a signature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think they just have a heightened suspicion of e-mail cause they don't get it?
RICK SHAPIRO:I think they have a heightened suspicion of e-mail because it's just so new to them, but I think what they're missing is constituents simply expect that when they write their members of Congress on line that they're going to get an online response and it's going to be faster than 3 weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Your report suggests that part of the problem comes from grassroots organizations and their mass e-mails. You think that if they could limit their activity to constituents corresponding with their Congressmen it would be much more effective and would glut up the system a lot less?
RICK SHAPIRO: What I think Congress needs and what would be much, much more effective is for the grassroots organizations to say there are limitations. If you want to be heard the best way for a constituent to be heard, the best way for us to help voices be heard is to make sure people who are writing are writing their senator, their congressperson and not sending mass e-mails to everybody in Congress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now your report is 20 pages long, but can you briefly summarize how you think some of the more endemic problems can be dealt with?
RICK SHAPIRO: There's ways of automating this whole process which is what the best offices are doing; the real issue is that most congressional offices simply aren't aware that that technology exists, and then once they are made aware of it, they don't have the technical capability in house - in their offices - to say how do you make his system work?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Shapiro, thank you very much!
RICK SHAPIRO: Thanks, Brooke. Appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Shapiro is the executive director of the congressional management foundation.