It has long been believed that getting an MP to write to minister is a more effective than sending postcards directly to a government department. Why? Because protocol dictates that a letter from an MPs requires a ministerial response, but how many items of correspondence are government departments getting?
This ministerial statement from last month gives details of the number of ministerial correspondence (letters from MPs and Lords) each department receives in 2008. The top 10 departments and agencies are;
1. UK Border Agency – 51,905
2. Department of Health – 20,242
3. Department for Children, Schools and Families – 15,810
4. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – 14526
5. HM Treasury – 14,057
6. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – 10,334
7. Department for Communities and Local Government – 10,227
8. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – 9,875
9. Department for Transport – 8,393
10. Child Support Agency – 7,313
A couple of others to note included DECC which received over 2,500 letters in the few months after it was created, and DFID which recieved 3,100.
Many of the letters recieved by agencies (like the UK Border Agency where a large number of the enquiries will be individual imigration and asylum requests) from MPs won’t ever be seen by a minister so will have little or no political impact.
Taking out agencies the average government department receives just under 7,000 letters per year. When you divide that between 4 ministers (an average number of ministers per department based on a quick look at this Cabinet Office list) it means that each minister is dealing with about 34 letters each week but many will be signing many more.
This is a useful briefing for civil servants about how to draft responses to ministerial correspondence.
I’ve be reading the very enjoyable diaries of Chris Mullin MP over the Easter weekend, entitled ‘A View from the Foothills‘ they’re a great look at life somewhere down the ministerial pecking order.
Mullin was a junior minister at the Department for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), DFiD and the Foreign Office. It’d be fair to say that Mullin isn’t a great advocate of the lower rungs of ministerial responsibility, but reading the book provides some useful insights into what the work of junior minister is like. Something of tremendous use given that much of the engagement campaigners and lobbyist often have is with junior ministers.
A few key lessons stand out;
1. Junior ministers aren’t often particularly interested in the brief they have. Mullin, who before becoming a minister was a influential chair of the Home Affairs Select committee, implies he knew next to nothing about the environment when he started in that job, and kept up simply from reading the briefs provided to him.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when they’re not especially interested, Mullin seems to infer at times that the best issues to deal with are the ones that are trouble free, uncontroversial and mean that they won’t cause any embarrassment. Some lobby for the post they really want but most don’t get it.
2. Ministers sign lots of letters. Mullin talks about spending hours at the office often late at night signing letters from MPs. Few get mentioned, although he does despair when thanks to a Friends of the Earth campaign he has to sign over 500 letter. A good way to make a point, but perhaps a quick way to loose good will?
3. They spend lots of time giving speeches – part of the life of a junior minister is to go out and about around the country and give speeches to organisations which have some link. Mullin suggests most aren’t very well written and he was often embarrassed to deliver them. So the next time you hold an event and the minister doesn’t give the barnstorming speech you expect after watching too much West Wing, it probably isn’t their fault.
4. They don’t have huge amounts of access to the Secretary of State or the PM. This obviously depends on the department they’re posted to (so access seems to be better at the Foreign Office under Jack Straw than at DETR under John Prescott) but most seem only to have access to the Secretary of State at weekly departmental meeting and occasional rushed conversations here and there. Generally Mullin doesn’t give the impression that they get to set a departments agenda, this comes from the Secretary of State (or often even higher up government).
5. They are advised to pick a few issues to change policy on – Mullin while at the environment and region chose try to deal with leylandii hedges, rent paid to absent landlords and getting away without a ministerial car. All valuable but hardly groundbreaking, and even then it was hard work navigating between special interests, civil servants and government priorities to make progress.
6. So much of politics is informal – from the diaries you get the impression that many decisions are made through quiet conversations in tea rooms, chats in the lobby, a call to a friend who is a friend with another minister or a written note slipped into a box.
7. MPs spend lots of time on the train! Mullin is often talking about catching the 20.00 back to Sunderland and bumping into this or that MP. I think my next campaign strategy is going to map the MPs my target might catch the train home with!
Using supporters to engage and influence MPs remains the core work of many campaigning organisations, and many organisations have chosen to make this easy for supporters by investing in software such as Advocacy Online, but what do we know about how MPs use technology and respond to eCampaigning. Two reports might help.
How MPs use digital media.
The Hansard Society has recently released ‘MPs Online – Connecting with Constituents‘ which explores how MPs use digital media to communicate with constituents. The finding are useful for campaigners, as it gives an insight into what MPs are themselves doing, and provides ideas about how organisations can increase their digital engagement with MPs.
The report finds that almost all MPs are using email, most have personal or party run websites but the numbers using other forms of electronic communications is smaller. Social networking, blogs, twitter and texting is used by less that 20% of MPs. The overall picture seems to be that MPs, much like many campaigning organisations, have started to adopt digital media as a way of communicating out to constituents, but less have been able to make a leap into using using web 2.0 tools which might help to ensure a more meaningful conversations with constituents.
Their are some interesting differences dependent on party membership (Lib Dems are the positive about digital media, Conservative the least) and age (younger MPs are more likely to use it, so as older MPs stand down we’re likely to see a bigger take up of digital media ), but little difference dependent on marginality of seat. The report suggests that their is potential for greater engagment and closer ties in the future.
MPs also make useful observations saying that email has been great for them to communicate with constituents but the immediancy of the tool means that people often assume that they’ll be able to engage in a ongoing discussion that MPs simply don’t have time for, indicating that their office staff often struggle to cope with the volume of emails recieved (an increase which hasn’t been accompanied by a fall in the number of letters) , and the challenge of identifying if the correspondent is from their constituency.
Attitudes towards eCampaigning
In 2006, Duane Raymond at Fairsay was comissioned to carry out some reasearch about MPs attitudes to eCampaigning, the whole report can be read here.
Although its a few years old, the findings from the Hansard Society would indicate that many of the key learning probablly still remain true. The main findings of the report is that every MPs is very different in how they respond to and engage with eCampaigning, but that most organisations still offer their campaigners a one-size fits all approach to commnications.
This means they’re not having the biggest impact they could and the findings encourage organisations to be much more savy at how they segment their communications to MPs, for example by segmenting the message that they ask supporters to send. Many MPs report that quality is as important than quantity when it comes to messages.
Another finding that stands out is the need to show that MPs that the person contacting them is actually from their consituency. The internet may have in many ways removed geographical barriers, but they are still of considerable importance to MPs.
For me both reports indicate that it makes sense to have an online campaigning presence, but also reinforces that this shouldn’t simply replace more traditional low tech campaigingng method but should work in tandem.
Organisations should remember that n individually composed letter (or email) is better than an automated one – many organisatiosn know this, but perhaps more needs to be done to encourage people to spend the extra 5 minutes to write it.
Individual constituency level activists will always have a value, the MPs indicate that those people who have the time to write a hand written or visit an MP are ‘worth their weight in gold’. Organisations should do all they can to encourage, support and inspire these people.
Duncan Green has just posted insights from a recent research project that the Oxfam GB has run into ‘influencing the influentials’. I’d highly recommend reading it – http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=186
Without the actual report we don’t get the detail it provides, but a few lists that might sheed some light on a couple of points that Green makes;
Print is much more effective than broadcast – Its useful to look at lists like the annual Guardian Media 100 to get a sense of the influence of different paper, I’d suggest its possible to take the position the respective editor get as a reasonable proxy for the importance and influence of the papers as much as them as individuals.
So from the 2008 list, Paul Dacre at Daily Mail is at 3, then a long gap to Rebekka Wade at the Sun at 30. The rest of the papers are then grouped together in positions 37 through to 48 in the following order Telegraph, Guardian, FT, Times, Daily Mirror and Independent. The editors of the Sunday Times (44) and Mail on Sunday (78) are the only Sunday papers that make it in.
the ‘commentariat’ is becoming ever more important as the interface between politicians and public opinion – Its harder to find a list of top columnists, but the Total Politics list of the Top 100 Political Journalists, not all of them are members of the ‘commentariat’ but a good number are and the list was voted for by MPs is a good place to start. Many columnists are also active authors, appear on TV/Radio, regular bloggers and speakers.
Two columnists made it into the Guardian Media 100, Matthew D’Ancona (also editor of the Spectator at 42) whose column is described as ‘being the most significant of the next 12 months’, and Andrew Rawnsley at the Observer (72) described by a panel member as ‘one of the two people you read on a Sunday if you are in the Government’
The recent campaign over the third runway at Heathrow reached the media headlines in a way that few others have in the last few months. While the final result was disapointing and the end of the governments short lived ‘pro environment’ rhetoric, I think it provides a number of useful lessons for campaigners to reflect upon.
Creativity counts – The campaign saw some, in my opinion, some of the best and most creative actions that for a long time. From Greenpeace buying a piece of land to the Climate Rush picnic at T1. We saw some great campaign stunt to complement the more traditional campaign methods. Greenpeace even made headlines for getting Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon banned from the Latitude music festival.
Building a broad coaltion – this article from John Vidal explores the vast coalition that was behind the campaign. From local groups, local councils to some of the biggest environmental NGOs, the campaign managed to unite a vast group of organisations who don’t normally come together. It demonstrated the breadth of concern.
Undoubtably the Conservative Party came out against the runway, in part because of the pressure from local Conservative run councils under the proposed flight path, and the potential of making this an issue in a number of important marginal seats in London.
Lots of emails to MPs get noticed – So some MPs might have complanined about the e-mail bombing that they were on the end off, but none of the 50 MPs could have ignored the number of people (said to be about 5,000) who over a weekend were concerned enough about the issue to send an email.
Understand the political dynamics – Going forward, the clear divisions that occured within the Cabinet over the final decision, provide a useful insight into any future campaigning on similar issues. Its clear that at least two camps are forming around these issues, and may signal the rise of the ‘Milibenn’ tendency.