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Constituent Communication in Representative Democracy: Testing Platforms for Deliberation in the U.S. Congress

Creative Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

Members of Congress (also called Members) use a myriad of communications technologies to communicate with their constituents. Yet, growing evidence finds that Members primarily use these technologies to promote one-way and promotional forms of communication. These practices debilitate democratic representation by expanding the communication gap between representatives and citizens. Platforms for deliberation may offer a solution to this communication gap. By providing spaces for informed, direct, and deliberative communication—representatives can improve their ability to connect to the voices of their constituency and include them in their policy decision-making environment.

To empirically explore this possibility, I conducted a week-long, asynchronous, deliberative forum between one Member of Congress and a representative sample of their constituency. As a result of the forum, constituents feeling of impact on the Member’s decision-making increased compared to other forms of engagement. The majority of constituents believed the Member should continue conducting these forums like these in the future, preferring the asynchronous and extended method of engagement. The asynchronicity of the forum also opened up novel opportunities for staff collaboration—potentially leading to new pathways for direct policy impact.

The forum also unveiled important institutional barriers to deliberative effectiveness. Although the constituents believed the Member engaged in the forum, communications staff engaged on the Member’s behalf. The staff maintained minimal and formal modes of interaction. As a result, many constituents did not find engagement from the Member and staff substantive. There was also no evidence that the forum impacted the decision-making of the Member and their staff.

This forum was a promising first step in testing online, asynchronous, deliberative engagements in Congress. If Members and their staff put in the work to engage constituents in these kinds of forums, these deliberative engagements could improve Members’ relationships with their constituency and open news pathways for constituents to impact the legislative process. However, strong institutional norms within Congress may prevent the effectiveness of these deliberative engagements long-term. The institution will need to alter how they come to understand and prioritize constituents in the policy decision-making process for these deliberative engagements to be effective.

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