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 While this image is a little out of date (it’s from ECF2014) it was Stella Creasy sharing what, on average, comes into her inbox during a week in Parliament;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.
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’
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.
It can only be a matter of time before the verb ‘to twet’ ends up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Last month the BBC reported that the micro-blogging phenomenon had for the first time made it into the top 20 most used social networking sites and that Twitter grew ten fold in 2008.
So should campaigners care? Rachel at The Charity Place has a whole number of excellent posts about Twitter and how to get started, while Econsultancy asks if more charities should be using Twitter.
Enough has already been written about twitter to generate a lifetime of tweets, so I just want to summarise a few ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for campaigners.
– Its free
– Its instant – within moments you can be updating your followers about a new action they can take, a campaign victory to report. No longer do you need to build and send an e-mail or wait until the next campaign publications to tell your supporters.
– So what if you fail – working with social media means a change in attitudes for many, its forcing organisations to be less risk adverse, perhaps a difficult things for NGOs who are aware that everything is paid for by donations, but isn’t the spirit of social media to try things, knowing that some with fail, but many will succeed.
– Politicans are using it – The Economist reports on the use of Twitter among US senators , OK so the UK is different but number 10 has been twittering for the last 12 months, and now a number of MPs are.
– Its growing and fast– are we witnessing a ‘tipping point’ for twitter?
– Who uses it? Twitter may have experienced phenomenal growth in a short time, but who actually uses it? Labour Home asks a good question. Is Twitter just the domain of a small circle of ‘early adopters’ or is it about to break into the mainstream.
– Its more than a just another PR channel – it seems that those who have been most successful with Twitter have embraced the fact its a conversation not another place to post your press release to, but doing this well has time implications.
–You need the right technology – unless you have a web enabled mobile its hard to really follow people. But sales of the iPhone and other similar phones would suggest that more and more people are adopting these
– Does anyone care – Tweetminster is a wonderful idea, but will most MPs respond to a question/comment via Twitter – especially when they’re isn’t any evidence that the followers are from their own constituencies.
Instinctively I’m an ‘early adopter’ so I think Twitter is a great thing. My early adventures (at a UN conference and on a trip to Liberia) have been fun and insightful for thinking about the possibilities of Twitter.
From those experiences I’ve learnt that you need to put some serious time into promoting your feed, and then keeping the messages going to build up a head of steam. Equally you need to invest in putting time into replying to others and building a network on line. Twitter is not going to replace the more traditional methods of communicating with decision makers, but it might be a new one, an opportunity to demonstrate concerns and put issues onto the agenda within moments.