The Great Mail Crisis of 2018-2019

Last Thursday, Rachel (my supervisor) and the legislative correspondent (LC) David (my supervisor last year before he got promoted) left the office to attend a mail training, since Rachel takes a few issue areas from David’s constituent letter portfolio to help lessen the work burden.  They both came back extremely flustered three hours later, and suddenly the whole legislative staff huddled around Rachel’s desk, obviously very stressed about something.  It didn’t appear secretive because they didn’t take the meeting into the Congresswoman’s office, nor did they shut the door between where the interns sit and where Rachel sits, so my coworkers and I listened in on what was going on.  Our legislative director, Liz (who is in charge of the office when the Chief of Staff is out) was upset that numerous constituents either never received responses to their inquiries (phone calls, US Mail, faxes, or emails) or received the wrong response letter on the issue area.  Liz pointed out that some of the open messages (meaning messages the office has not responded to yet) dated back to June 2018.  Not responding to inquiries in a timely fashion is insulting to constituents, and can reflect poorly on the Congresswoman.

As context to the situation, the system by which constituents pass messages to the Congresswoman and receive responses is facilitated through the Congressional mail tracking platform, Intranet Quorum (IQ).  The office tasks interns to sort through all physical and electronic mail and record phone call opinions into IQ, and to then assign each inquiry to a proper “batch,” or category.  Last summer, the office’s LC was very strict about creating new batches.  There was a rule that unless there were twenty or more messages on a particular topic, we were to hold off on creating new batches. The thought process behind this was that otherwise, there would be hundreds of batches, making writing letters on behalf of the Congresswoman for thousands of batches a very daunting task for just one LC.  While last year’s LC was strict about creating new batches, he did not communicate well to us guidelines for batching out-of-place mail.  If the amount of mail on a topic didn’t meet the twenty-message threshold, we simply used our best judgements and either held off batching until more came in, or placed the message(s) into a more general category.

This year, David, as the “new” LC, didn’t train us for specific ways he likes to organize batches, and Rachel told us to create new batches for mail that we couldn’t fit into proper categories.  With my desk next to David’s and remembering the system from last year, I usually double check before creating a new batch or ask for his preferences, but I found that as I sorted through available batches to place mail, there were suddenly hundreds of new batches created by my coworkers with either one or very few messages within them.

Essentially, this created two separate yet equally frustrating issues over the course of the past year.  First, interns from last year ducked messages into batches that did not really fit, resulting in a constituent receiving a letter that did not address his/her opinion.  For instance, since mail regarding healthcare can be tricky with very niche legislative areas and very general batches, a constituent could have written in on a specific drug price control negotiation bill, and instead receive a letter on the Congresswoman’s opinion on the ACA.  While that example wouldn’t necessarily be an egregious mistake, it still does not address the constituent’s inquiry, and can appear dodgy.  Second, with the overwhelming amount of new batches for extremely niche issues, each containing maybe one to ten inquiries max, there are too many active batches for David to crank out letters for.  What this shows is that the current system in place to respond to constituents lacks a centralized plan, and leaves room for a large margin of error, especially if an intern haphazardly batches without giving a topic due diligence to figure out where it best fits.

To fix the system, one of the legislative assistants (LA) suggested that the batches be reorganized by a new naming system.  Instead of the general topic or name of a bill, he proposed that every batch be named by whether the batch was created by an intern, the session of congress, the bill or issue topic, and applicable bill number(s) (I.e. “INTERN – 116TH– BILL NAME – BILL #”). While this is a step in the right direction and flags an intern work product for Rachel and David to double check, I still see a few flaws in this system.

While I have a lot of respect for David (especially because he was my boss last year, too), since this is his domain, he could prevent this issue by providing more leadership and training for the interns, especially if he is not one to micromanage and examine every single batch and piece of mail we place (which would be physically impossible since we get hundreds of messages a day).  Drawing from contingency theory, in this moderately disorganized system, a low ‘least preferred coworker’ (LPC) score, or relationship-oriented leader, could be advantageous to nurture interns to figuring out what to do on their own, alongside a structured system through developed guidelines and additional rules of thumb.

I think it would be helpful if David or any successive LC creates a system and a manual/guide to pass along to interns for a formal IQ training, which would outline different general scenarios that may pop up when there is no exact batch for a piece of mail.  That way, David or any LC can create a system that runs smoothly even if the LC is not there and there are questions on whether to create a new batch.  I understand, however, why there has not been a formal “training” in the past; at some point, us interns need to use our brains, research the bills and issues, and apply some common sense on what to do.  Yet on the other hand, while common sense mishaps and human error can account for some mail flying under the radar with either no response or the wrong response, the current situation is prone to systemic mistakes over the course of many intern cohorts, indicating a lack of leadership or structured system in place.