It’s a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that MPs don’t like ‘email your MP’ petitions.Listen to MPs talk to campaigners, and they’ll tell you they find the annoying and a burden on precious staff time, but they’re a staple in most campaigning toolkits.
Most MPs will tell you that the volume of emails means it can be hard to distinguished between the signal and the noise? Don’t believe that? While this image is a little out of date (it’s from ECF2014) it was Stella Creasy sharing what, on average, comes into her inbox during a week in Parliament;
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should head calls from some MPs to stop petitioning them – they’re our elected officials so we should petition them. I’m also realistic that any ‘cross Parliament’ solution is unlikely to be adopted – MPs they say, have to be seen as 650 small businesses, so rarely do they all-adopt the same technology, unless they’re told to.
Plus I’m not going to dive into a debate about the quality of some campaigns, except to add that some email to MP campaigns don’t appear to have thought about what the theory of change is – and that has an impact all of us (all campaigners should read this on what makes an effective petition).
So what could replace them in our toolkit? Or if not replace improve how we use them? 1. Phone calls – Unlike the United States we don’t have much of a culture of calling your elected official – perhaps it’ll catch on? Even then it will still be likely to frustrate MPs as much as emails do as they don’t have the staff capacity to deal with the calls, or effective mechanisms to collect the information from them. 2. Parliament petition site – I’ve suggested before that the frustration of MPs could be channelled towards suggesting that they’ll only accept petitions via the official Parliament petition site. While the site has been improved, it still has lots of limitations – not least when it comes to supporter data which is held just by Parliament, that it’s a closed site (so it can’t be embedded on another website) and doesn’t allow for any personalisation by the signer. 3. Focus on a specific MP rather than all MPs – At the NCVO Campaigning Conference, Jess Phillips MP suggested that one of the most effective petitions she’d seen during her time in Parliament had been the change.org petition on the Tampon Tax, which had worked directly with Paula Sherriff MP to help to provide her with the evidence of support for the issue. Strikes me that most issues can find a Parliamentary champion or two, so perhaps this is a way forward? 4. Require your own message – MPs complain that too many emails are identikit, but while many of us try to persuade supporters to personalise the messages they send, have we tested what the drop off would be if we required supporters to come up with their own subject lines, or add in a reason why your signing? It wouldn’t solve the volume question, but could mean that MPs couldn’t accuse of us of just sending ‘identikit’ messages. 5. Better integration with casework software – many MPs who have large amounts of casework use software to track the requests that are coming in from constituents. How many of us are looking to see how we can incorporate our actions and messages into these? 6. Email to letter – Given I have an app on my phone that can turn my photos into a personalised postcard that can be sent in the post to a friend, could the same technology be developed to turn my email to an MP into a letter. It’d place a cost on the organisation behind the campaign, but it’d present the opportunity for delivery via another channel. 7. Snapchat – I can’t pretend to understand Snapchat – which probably means most MPs won’t either) but opportunities do new communication channels like Snapchat or WhatsApp provide new ways to communicate with MPs? 8. Bots – Florian from MoreOnion wonders here if the rise in the use of AI means that we’ll be able to design bots that will be able to automatically capture and engage in a campaign action – could that help MPs respond to our requests.
I’m sure other solutions exist , as well as examples of where petitions are having an impact – in the same presentations that I took that image from Stella Creasy talked about the importance of ensuring a petition is part of wider advocacy strategy – she specifically mentioned Friends of the Earth Bee campaign.
Either way what strikes me from the list above is that organisations have to be prepared to adapt and change rather than just defaulting to ’email your MP’. I look forward to hearing thoughts from others of how we make this tool work to have the maximum impact.
So Martha Lane Fox has today delivered her review of digital provision in central government and the future of the No10 petition site still remains unclear.
The site, which has seen 5 millions people take action, was taken down ahead of the May general election, and ever since its future has remained uncertain (I’ve argued this might not be a bad thing but it’d be good to know one way or another). For the last few weeks it has displayed the following message; November 2010 – The overall future of all HMG digital comms and engagement is bound into the Martha Lane Fox review, which will be announced imminently. The future of e-petitions will be part of that review.
But a decision is going to be hard when the report which was released today says nothing about the site, e-petitions or how the government can use digital media to engage directly with citizens on public policy issues.
I might be missing something (another report from Lane Fox perhaps), but it seems that the Coalition Government is keen to continue to kick the future of the site into the long grass.
So much for a ‘new way of doing politics’.
So, after a very long summer break I’m back…one of my first blogs back in February was about twitter I asked if it was going to catch on.
I was cautiously optimistic, I wanted it to work, but was wary that it could go the way of other social media phenomena. Well what a 6 months Twitter has had. The numbers of people using it are still growing, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s changed the face of campaigning. Changing Policy – Lots has been written about the role of twitter in mobilising people, but last week was perhaps a high-water mark for twitter.
On Monday, we had the Trafigura story exploding on twitter, within hours of the Guardian publishing a cryptic article on its website about an injunction we saw people starting to tweet what the parliamentary question was. Before long the story was leading on the mainstream news, and a scandal that was only going to get noticed by a few who had been following the story was everywhere, a very public PR disaster! Liam from louder.org.uk has a good post on this.
Then on Friday, we saw twitter mobilise a record 22,000 people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Daily Mail on the death of Stephen Gatley.
Before that we had the organisation BeThatChange organising a day of action which saw thousands of people trying to get Gordon Brown to go to COP, the response was that Ed Miliband put up a poll on his Ed’s Pledge website asking people to vote for their political priority ahead of Copenhagen. A few days later, and Gordon Brown announced he was going to COP.
No doubt there are many other examples that one could point to over the last few months, ILovetheNHS for example. Two thoughts about what these examples have in common, an immediacy within moments someone has picked up on the story, and in hours they’ve reached a tipping point that forces the target to respond. Secondly, few of these campaigns have been initiated by organisations but instead twitter has put the ability to mobilise in the hands of people with lots of followers on twitter. Some more agile movements may have been able to pick up on them (for example 38degrees around Trafigura), but twitter is helping to put mobilising power to those with virtual networks. Engaging with policy makers – Today, two people I know got responses from @EdMilibandMP to their questions/comment and I’ve seen an interesting discussion with @SadiqKhan about an announcement he was making on parking. So what? Well unlike most communications with ministers/MPs, the chances are those policy makers have actually responded themselves, Twitter has cut out the comms department, the secretary and allowed people to share what they’re thinking directly with those holding the red box. No doubt this phenomena will come to an end when the number of followers becomes overwhelming, but for the time its a great opportunity to take advantage of.
Two others useful things;
– Back in the summer the people who matter in Whitehall issued these guidelines about how government department should be using twitter, while they were ridiculed for being too long, they’re the best set of guidelines I’ve found if you need to persuade senior management in your organisation to understand and use twitter.
– I’ve been experimenting with act.ly as a way of getting supporters to use twitter to show their support for a campaign, initial experience is good.
Does today mark the birth of a new campaign movement in the UK? Their has long been talk of a British equivilant to MoveOn in the US or GetUp in Australia. This afternoon I received my first e-mail from 38degrees, which is trying to follow the same path and mobilise people to act together to take actions on the issues that matter. Having assembled a team of advisors and staff from some of the most effective progressive campaign groups in the UK, you feel that this might be the one that succeeds.
The first action that 38degrees have asked people to take is to allow people to recall MPs, its a smart choice, big enough to feel that is an appropriate response to the situation, but achievable enough to actually possibly happen (as opposed to asking for electoral reform), its a timely issue and one which will resonate with people beyond those who traditionally take action. Its also something that already has seen some support from newspapers and politicians. It’s not clear from the action what they’ll do with the petition, but I’m sure they’ll report back in the coming weeks.
It remains to be seen if 38degrees will have the same impact that MoveOn and GetUp did. I hope it does, but the UK is a crowded campaigning marketplace with lots of organisations offering similar products and campaign methods, so they could struggle to differentiate from others.
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. Some conculsions
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.
Actions that have arrived in my inbox over the last two weeks. Action Aid– Stand alongside campaigners in India calling for mining in the Niyamgiri Hills to be halted. In the UK, you can support the campaign by sending an email via the Indian High Commissioner in London CAFOD – Calling on mining companies to listen to communities in the Philippines. Practical Action – Urge Gordon Brown to strengthen EU climate proposals. RSPB – Urge the government to switch to green energy WDM – Stop the EU’s Great Train Robbery
You could set up a whole blog about what we can learn from the Obama presidential campaign, but just a quick post to flag up this interesting article in the Guardian about Thomas Gensemer, MD of Blue State Digital, the company that ran the hugely successful Obama online effort, which raised over $500 million and recruited 13.5 million supporters.
While the focus of the article is about how political parties should use the web, it has lots of lessons that could transfer over to campaigning NGOs. A few key points;
On using the web as a mobilising tool – Rather than merely join this network, passively clicking a button to donate or express an allegiance to Obama, members were encouraged to go out into the real world to knock on doors, hand out leaflets and spread the word. The site then encouraged these efforts to be recorded and shared with the online community, making the user feel empowered and on the front line of the campaign Obama saw technology as the only way to transfer traditional community organising to a national level, with volunteers and donors signing up online and then being encouraged to go out to recruit further volunteers, hold meetings and house parties, spread the message.
On the web as a gimick v’s a communication tool
Now Labour MPs are using Twitter, but the political capital that went into getting a couple of MPs to Twitter probably wasn’t worth it. Prescott’s petition on the bankers has 15,000 signatures, but what are they asking people to do? You could have asked for different things that would create a greater sense of engagement. None of this is a technology challenge; it’s an organisational challenge, being willing to communicate with people.
Read the whole article here, which includes a short video of Gensemer reviewing the websites of the Labour and Conservative parties.
UPDATE – Gensemer also spoke to an audience at City University while he was in the UK. The reports from the talk make fascinating reading. You can also view a video here and download the powerpoint slides here.
Video of debate to mark the launch of City University’s new MA on Political Campaigning – Political Campaigners and Reporters – partners in democracy or rats in a sack. Notes from BOND event on Campaigning Effectiveness and using new media