Because of technology, and the public’s changing expectations of elected officials, messaging from constituents to public officeholders increased over fivefold—548 percent—between 2002 and 2010, according to the Congressional Management Foundation. That’s a lot more communication, and constituent management software development during that time reflected this new need.

But there’s still a structural impediment to staff being fully responsive to constituents: “Members of Congress are only allowed to hire eighteen staff members apiece, a statistic that doesn’t change with the increased volume of messaging. So there’s still a great deal of dissatisfaction: “Research by Zogby found that email is the most common way to contact Congress, and that most people expect a response to their messages. Yet a third of people who email Congress receive no response, and nearly half of those who did receive a response found it lacking, usually because they believed it failed to actually address their issue” or issues.

Above all, what is needed is a way to interact with the folks that are contacting the office before committing the same amount of time to each constituent’s contact—or before inadvertently blowing them off.

Middleware is a potential approach to this. Middleware is aptly named: it’s software that acts as a “middle person” for communication between users and managers of distributed applications. Constituent communication applications that use middleware can, according to researchers at VisionTrac, “enable and foster interactions among the many relevant ‘civic actors’ in a way that does not prevent participation of diverse actors due to the use of heterogeneous and distributed technologies, but rather reconciles them.” In the case of constituent software, it allows interaction for the sake of civic engagement—but it can also be used to discern what kind of engagement a participant needs. So if Joe or Jane visit a public official’s contact page, middleware can communicate with them: What’s this about? Do you need help with a public service? Do you want to leave a comment about proposed legislation? Anything else?

The common denominator of all social middleware is that it is interactive. In order to be interactive, it blends “the physical and virtual worlds in which connected objects and software platforms” interact with humans. This can be done in ways that encourage “civic engagement,” such as creating interactive “crowdsensing maps” and other public displays. Everything remains “human-centered” even though it’s utilizing bots of various kinds to engage constituents for as long as possible before human-to-human interaction is needed.

Market research from this month indicates middleware is about to accelerate in growth. It’s unclear how much of this is communications technology, but that industry is also in a period of deep global growth. I hope you’ll take time to contact us and discuss your own needs for better management of constituent communications.

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