It takes two: when citizens and Congress Members deliberate online

Samantha McDonald

Part of the Hearing every voice: lessons learned from online deliberation projects session of TICTeC Show and Tells 2021
Tuesday 20th April, 15:00 – 16:00 BST
Zoom

In the US, each Member of the House of Representatives represents an average of over 700,000 people.

Understandably, this makes it difficult to accurately interpret the views and needs of their constituency. The constant flood of incoming messages from advocacy campaigns and lobbyists often leads to skewed perception of district beliefs and preferences.

At the same time, citizens are increasingly disillusioned by Congress, feel detached from the decision-making process and unable to have access to the Member and their decisions.

To see if they could resolve some of this disconnect, the researchers invited 150 constituents that were representative of the district to a week-long, single topic, online forum – similar to an online ‘townhall’ – with their Member of Congress.

The goal of this experiment was to test the efficacy of asynchronous deliberations to improve the communication between Members of Congress and their constituents. This work was done in collaboration with POPVOX, the platform on which the forum took place.

The constituents were highly engaged, eager to discuss the topic, and offered a variety of diverse and informed suggestions and questions to the Member. Constituents also felt a statistically higher impact on the decision-making process of the Member compared to previous forms of engagement.

However, the Member and their staff offered minimal engagement due to their perceptions of the deliberation and institutional expectations of constituent communication. Their unexpected lack of engagement gave rise to important questions about what representation is and how institutional and cultural barriers can inhibit innovation to constituent communication in government.