November 10, 2017

Welcome to Resistbot v3

Here’s the thinking behind two major changes meant to increase the effectiveness of your communications.

by Jason Putorti

Users of Resistbot since mid-October have seen some changes, the largest since launch, with the aim of making your communications to your officials more effective, and to solve user problems inherent in the earlier versions of the product. There’s two big changes I want to explain the thought behind in detail:

New: Write Any of Your Officials on Day 1

When it first went live, the bot asked for just a name and zip code on the first session, and allowed you to message (only) your Senators immediately. It was very fast, and the bot was indeed sending letters from constituents to their proper Senators. We wanted to make the first experience really easy, and slowly introduce folks to more options over time, like a game. This approach was rooted in driving daily civic engagement and civic education, by delighting users with new powers each successive day. We were also wary of asking for addresses immediately, preferring instead to show you tangibly, not just tell you, what the bot was doing.

This approach had two problems:

First, by not including any information beyond a name and town, we ran the risk of those Senate offices ignoring the message. Traditionally, Congressional offices, even for senators that represent entire states, need complete addresses to be sure that they’re handling and responding to their own voters and constituents. Additionally, with only a phone number for those first-time users, there was no way for officials to respond, except by calling. Which does happen, but rarely. We heard from a few offices directly about these “day one” letters. For us it was a balance between having the first user letter of, hopefully, many missing some information vs. getting folks into a habit of corresponding with officials and engaging civically—but that wasn’t the only problem.

Second, our approach to adding your representative on your second letter, and specific official targeting after a few more letters, and governors after a few more, makes sense perhaps in a classroom, or in a different time perhaps when rights are not constantly under attack. In the here and now, people need to be able to write certain officials immediately regardless of how much they’ve used the bot in the past. We treated every user as a beginner. An organization of hundreds of thousands of people in Florida just wanted to be able to sign up and write Gov. Rick Scott on an issue that was desperately important to them, but our design was in their way. We couldn’t help them in time and let them down. This won’t happen again. We’re now creating a new civic education program separate from the core “resist” one, for students or just people writing Congress for the first time, and there are many Resistbot users that have never engaged before.

So now, the bot asks you for your address on the first day, allows messaging of any one of your representatives in Congress, your Governor, or the President, and the effectiveness of your message is now much higher with this information included. In cases where we can’t resolve an address to a district, we’re working on still allowing state officials immediately, and opening up the rest once human volunteers can sort that out. State legislatures and city mayors are also on their way. If you’re an existing user that had to re-enter your address, it’s likely when we captured it initially, something was dropped or captured incorrectly—one of many bugs fixed in v3. 🐛

New: Less Faxing, More E-Delivery

Faxing was initially a workaround for busy phone lines, and an email system that was not mobile-friendly, and certainly not available over SMS the way Resistbot is. At a reasonable volume, faxing may be okay. Most offices in D.C. receive them as digital images in their constituent management system, still harder to parse than text, but at least they don’t have to be manually scanned in (like postal letters). But we did not expect the sheer number of users, now around 1.5 million, to send over 5 million pages of faxes. We started this as an experiment in civic engagement without an intent to grow to this size. Resistbot is a sore subject in the hallways and staff mailing lists of Congress for this reason. Even early on we began to see failures on the D.C. fax lines, so we built a system to cycle the faxes out to district offices, but that was still insufficient. Also, typical district offices are not equipped for dealing with legislative affairs, only helping local constituents with their issues—so we were getting in their way, and these faxes had to be sent back to D.C. anyway.

Our initial response to this, in v2, was to offer more choices to the user for delivery: postal mail and calls, but in my opinion this hurt the simplicity of the product and ran contrary to my belief that you should not have to be a lobbyist to use Resistbot. Many users also complained about more and more options and lengthy chat sessions just to write their officials. The simplicity was a key reason people liked it, and we were sliding away from it in responding to feedback, not to mention increasing our SMS costs.

There’s a healthy debate to be had about disruption of offices vs. effective communication, namely if the communications aren’t shutting down the offices completely, will the staffers really notice? And will the official hear about it? I’d love to have that conversation in the comments here with anyone willing.

Congress has a 14% approval rating, so I get that people don’t think they’re being listened to, but Resistbot will further skew that downward if Members of Congress don’t get communications in a means they can respond to—and messages being tallied and responded to, for us, is crucial. The member should know how many people are against ACA repeal, for example, and act accordingly. If you want to disrupt the offices, calling is a way to do that for the most part.

As a liberal, I do believe in government, so I’m going to try to work with Congress to be sure your messages aren’t summarily thrown away. The faxes may have been “harder to ignore”, but at the volume we were sending them, some offices may have been declaring bankruptcy and discarding them. There’s a balance between hard to ignore and too many to pay attention to, and if Resistbot skews towards the latter, it will no longer work for anyone.

Electronic messages in the constituent management system have a trail, they will get tallied, and they do get delivered. The fact is, despite how much bot users love the idea of a fax, the failure rate between Sept. 7 to Oct. 15 was 49.6%. When our new version that lowered our own rate of faxing was released, the failure rate lowered to 28.8%. Still almost 1 in 3. The more our message volume picks up though, the more failures, since, like phone lines, there’s only so many fax lines.

Senators Markey, Paul, and Warren have no working fax numbers, Senators Blunt, Cornyn, and Cruz have disconnected most of theirs. Senator Cruz leads our failure leaderboard with a 92.6% rate—about 7 in 100 faxes make it on the first try. In March when we launched, this wasn’t the case. We found the backstage door, but only so many people can sneak in.

I care more than anything about users being heard.

In the new version: first we try electronic delivery, which attempts to send the message through the approved Congressional channel known as CWC. If that fails for one reason or another, like a technical glitch between our two systems, we will automatically route your message to our fax system, assuming your official still has a working number. Should faxing immediately fail, the bot will mail your letter with a stamp. We’re keeping a close eye as well on these fail-overs and will continue to make the bot smarter on a per official basis. The goal here is to get your message through in the most effective means without you needing to worry about all of this, that’s on us.

Thanks for using Resistbot, supporting us, and most importantly, resisting every day. 👊🤖

P.S. If you want to read more about where the bot is headed, read this next:

The Robot of the Resistance

Workerbot

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