Survey says: congressional staffers want more online communications with lobbyists


When it comes to being lobbied, the results are clear: congressional staffers want to be e-mailed. According to the new “Congressional Communications Report,” two-thirds (67.0%) of the staffers interviewed prefer to be contacted by e-mail. Fewer than one in ten (9.5%) of staffers prefer in-person visits. But half (49.9%) of lobbyists prefer the in-person meeting, which is more than the 39.0% who prefer to correspond by e-mail.

Part of the this, no doubt, is because staffers tend to be younger than lobbyists, and more comfortable with technology generally. Almost two-thirds (62.7%) of the 2,200-plus lobbyists surveyed were 46 years of age or older, while only one in six (16.8%) were under 35. By comparison, the vast majority of congressional staffers are under 35.

I spoke with the survey’s authors last week and asked them about their findings.

“Part of this is you are looking at a different approach to communications and relationship building,” co-author David Rehr, Ph.D., told me. “If you’re looking at millenials, they are far more comfortable forming digital relationships than their older peers in the lobbyist community. They are a much more digitally savvy demographic than the lobbyists trying to reach them, and they don’t think twice about things being digital only.” (Rehr has served as President and CEO of both the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. He is now CEO of TransparaGov, which describes itself as “a privately held corporation that helps state and local governments improve their management processes.”)

“The data show that one of the risks for lobbyists is that they have been doing things the way they have because of a cultural and generational divide,” Rehr continued. “This should lead them to rethink the tools and approaches they are using. It’s clear that the information sources and communications channels they’ve used aren’t the ones that are most effective and resonant.”

It is, of course, understandable why lobbyists would prefer the face-to-face meetings. The survey found that the average congressional staffer gets 134 e-mails a day, and only 18% of staffers say they read all their e-mails. One staffer reported getting 1,400 e-mails a day.

“So, if I’m a lobbyist, I want a face-to-face meeting,” survey co-author John Kagia told me. “I don’t want to worry whether or not my e-mail got through.” (Kagia is the director of strategy and research at the consulting group ORI, and has a background in marketing.)

“There are different incentives here,” Kagia added, “For staffers, there is so much going on, and you want information and you want it quickly, and you want to move on because your boss is demanding 50 other things you do. The incentive for lobbyists is to be able to report back to their superiors that they had a face-to-face meeting. That shows a lot more gumption than saying you just sent an e-mail.”

But Kagia also envisioned the case of the staffer working on a policy memo late into the evening, and “they will go on the Internet.” Lobbyists need to make sure policy information is available there.

“Staffers use the Internet,” said Rehr. “I worked as a lobbyist for 30 years, and I thought about our website. But now we’re working with a generation of people who want it so quickly, and whatever comes out on top gets the click.”

All this should highlight the importance of providing an online system for staffers (and others) to access lobbyists’ and constituents’ perspectives with a few clicks of the mouse. I’ve proposed a transparent online clearinghouse (see here) that would accomplish this, making it easy for lobbyists to provide the most up-to-date information about their policy positions, accessible for all to see. The excellent website has made steps to make this a reality.

According to the survey, the three most important contributions that lobbyists say they provide members of Congress are “Impact on Business/Industry/Nonprofit of legislation” (43.5%), “Economic impact to Member’s state/congressional district” (24.5%), and “Background information on legislation” (22.8%). All three could easily be communicated through an on-line clearinghouse in a way that would meet the needs of the increasingly digitally-oriented congressional staffer.

We at Sunlight also support the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley as well as the Real-Time Online Lobbying Disclosure Act. For a full list of the Sunlight Foundation’s lobbying reform proposals, click here.


Other findings

The report covers other areas as well. One is influence. Measuring the influence of lobbyists in Washington is often a subjective project, So it’s no surprise that, when surveyed, lobbyists think that they are more influential than congressional staffers think lobbyists are.

But it is telling is that four in ten staffers say lobbyists are “moderately influential,” three in ten say they are “influential,” and eight percent say lobbyists are “very influential.” Just 14% say they are only “slightly influential.”

By contrast, 29% of lobbyists say they are “very influential” while 48% call themselves merely “influential,” and 21% say they are “moderately influential.”

The survey did not push respondents to define what they meant by “influential.”

Also of interest: 21.4% of the lobbyists said that “recent lobbying reforms” had decreased their effectiveness as a lobbyist.

“I suspect that since lobbyists on average have more than 15 years on the job, this means not being able to take staffers out to lunch,” Rehr told me. “The gift ban changed the way they interacted with newer staffers.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that only 0.2% of the lobbyists interviewed said that that their ability to raise money was the most important contribution they could provide to members of Congress. While it makes sense that few lobbyists would want to identify fundraising as the most important thing they do, it is a strikingly low percentage of the total. Still, the fact that so many lobbyists continue to do it means that it probably ain’t irrelevant either.