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Mandate Media: Digital Strategy for People Changing the World
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Grassroots advocacy: challenges in the new era

Writing in the Albany (Oregon) Democrat-Herald, Hasso Hering discovers the hard truth about getting in touch with your members of Congress. You can't really email them. You have to use the website forms. (This is no surprise to Congressional offices.)

When they had a public [email address], [Senator Ron] Wyden’s office would get something like 500,000 e-mails a day as interest groups around the world would bombard members of Congress with messages.

So now Wyden and others in Congress have their websites set up so only people from their respective states can get through.

Of course, the website-form thing has big implications for folks in our business -- since we'd rather use our own forms, and capture the names as we deliver the messages to members of Congress. That's not possible, unless you're one of the handful of firms that's been authorized to post data directly to those forms after capturing it yourself -- a technological feat (though not an impossible one) and a political challenge. Most of the firms offering those services do it for a substantial price.

Even snail-mail has its problems:

Traditional mail to Congress is still screened following the anthrax attack after 9/11. It is collected at a center away from the Capitol and checked for any problems. One of the things they do is to irradiate the mail in order to kill any spores or germs.

When all that is done, the mail is forwarded to the Capitol. The result: For a traditional letter to reach a congressional office may take up to a month.

All of which makes grassroots organizing and advocacy a lot tougher than it otherwise should be. Some groups have taken to hand-delivering messages to Congressional offices - but that only works if you've got the volume to justify staffing it.

Ultimately, this means that we need to continue to develop and experiment with alternative ways to organize the grassroots - and communicate directly to members of Congress. Are blogs enough? Do petitions work? Is it really appropriate to run independent campaign fundraising drives specifically when members do the right thing (or for their opponents when they do the wrong thing)? As Facebook approaches 50 million Americans, will members of Congress listen when mega-groups get organized to support or oppose a specific policy?

I guess we'll all stay tuned...