Monday, 9 August 2010

Lobby Group Politics

MPs get hundreds of emails and letters from constituents. I try to answer every one in reasonable time. But, MPs have finite time and resources, and I also want to prioritise those in the greatest need.

It is a difficult balance. My approach is to ask those with a problem or issue they want me to take up to write in, so I have full details and can check they are constituents (it is a protocol that you do not take up the case of other MPs' constituents). I hold regular surgeries. I send out a monthly bulletin to anyone who signs up. I actively encourage constituents (on my blog and website) to write to me, comment on my blog, email my association, telephone my office or book a surgery appointment. I live and commute from the constituency, which helps me stay in touch. Every week, I meet businesses, charities and residents across the borough.

At the moment, I am on crutches (after hip surgery), but I am determined to use the August Parliamentary recess to hold six open public meetings across the constituency so I can hear direct from residents, starting next week (advertised on this blog and in the local press).

All of this takes time and energy. You have to prioritise. One of the things I found as an MP, is that every lobby group puts you on their email distribution list - or an automated system that sends out cloned messages from members of the public who access it. I ask for my email address to be removed from such systems and encourage constituents to contact me direct (as above). Otherwise, my email inbox gets deluged by lobby group emails - and that detracts time and effort from dealing with the many constituents who raise problems or issues.

One such lobby group is a company called 38 Degrees - campaigning for AV amongst a range of other lib-left causes. By asking them politely to remove me from their system, which allows its supporters to click and send an automated email, I have incurred their wrath. They have published a blog post on their website. People will be able to judge for themselves whether I am behaving reasonably or not. I believe campaign groups have their place, but I don't see why lobby groups should be able to bombard MPs (or anyone else for that matter) with emails, if they request their address to be removed.

Reasonable people may differ on all of this. Fair enough. But 38 Degrees are now resorting to slur, through the rather silly, false and malicious misrepresentation of what I have said. The headline of their blogpost reads: "DOMINIC RAAB MP TELLS CONSTITUENTS 'DON'T EMAIL ME ... IT'S BECOMING A REAL NUISANCE'." Whatever your political persuasion, that is clearly a total distortion of what I told them. I just don't want 38 Degrees using my email for their mass e-lobbying campaigns - any more than I do a commercial lobby group or trade association.

UPDATE I: A number of people have asked whether I reply to constituent emails to my HoC address. Yes, absolutely - and it is very easy to work out an MP's email address (surname, initial, @parliament.uk). For those in any doubt, there is a phone number on my contact pages, so people can obtain it (for major issues I still prefer a letter with full details and address). The reason I stopped formally advertising my actual email address is that the Information Commissioner's Office advised me that, if I do, I am putting it in the public domain and then cannot ask for it to be removed from mass e-distribution lists or automated systems.

UPDATE II: Thanks for the texts, emails and suggestions. I have adopted the best one - an E-contact form that maximises my accessibility to constituents, but does not advertise my email address to lobbyists. I would prefer to publish my email address, as I did until recently. So, I have also written to the Information Commissioner seeking clarification of the right to have an email address removed from the automated devices and distribution lists that lobby groups deploy to send clone emails.

24 comments:

Molly Bennett said...

I have a great number of friends and colleagues who have worked for MPs for many years and, to my knowledge, none of their MPs have ever instructed any individual or group not to email them, nor have they tried to make their email address inaccessible. Indeed, all of us would be horrified by the idea - however much it might lessen our workloads.

Most of us work to quite strict turnaround times (courtesy of the pressure exerted by TheyWorkForYou.com et al), but this does not prevent us being able to prioritise constituents' queries, and treat material from lobby groups accordingly. There is surely an issue of competency here, if your own staff are struggling so much?

Indeed, I am wondering whether you have now appointed a full constituency staff if you are feeling so deluged? I have been hearing that a number of MPs have been slow to do this, and also that inexperienced staff have been trying to work through cases by date order only, i.e. without assessing and prioritising urgent cases.

It is my experience that many constituents are nervous about their literacy skills, and intimidated by the need to write a formal letter to their MPs, so that email (and phone calls) are their preferred options. If, as is being claimed, your email address has been removed from the HoC website etc, are you confident that you will not be compromising these people's access to their MP?

It is also being rumoured that you are not currently offering constituency surgeries to individuals - are you able to clarify your position on this?

Christina Martin said...

I'm sorry but as one of your constituents I feel I must comment.

Your email address has been removed from EVERYWHERE on the internet.

Your personal site, House of Commons, theyworkforyou; everywhere.

How are your constituents expected to contact you?

These 'lobbying' groups as you call them are only facilitating a way for people to contact their MPs about the issues of the day.

Also, as my MP, I find it quite disconcerting that you don't want to hear about issues that you deem to be Lib/Left causes.

I realise you are a Conservative but you serve a well rounded and mixed community. Some issues that aren't right wing, do have merit in the eyes of the people you serve.

Debra Storr said...

you have secretarial support - paid for by us. If you can't cope with people contacting you on important issues, perhaps this is not the right job for you.

Richard Fletcher said...

Hi

To prioritise emails your email program, Outlook, Thunderbird, whatever, can be set up to filter emails into specific folders.

You can, as emails come in, set up rules based on the contents of the email to automatically sort your messages.

Even if you do manage to reduce the volume of email you receive, if you learn about these features of your email program you should be able to quickly separate incoming emails into directories such as "lobbies" "ongoing cases" "known" "junk" and so on.

You can have folders for specific items so "Lobbies - 38 degrees - campaign X" for example.

Hopefully this will help you represent your constituents more effectively.

I'm going to assume you use Outlook 2003, here's some help from Microsoft in achieving this:

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/outlook-help/create-a-rule-HP005242897.aspx

Kind Regards
Richard Fletcher

dw22 said...

Well said.

The HUGE irony here is that if you try and send them a message through their website - one that wouldn't of course be a template like all theirs - you are told that they might not be able to get back to you because they are too busy!

Keep working for those that are in need.

Bee said...

But your email address is already in the public domain. And why is this blog not accepting comments?

Rebecca Flaherty

Flay said...

Mr Raab, your email address is still in the public domain. It is available from the BBC website here (http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/representatives/profiles/83496.stm) and is at any rate a publicly funded email account. You may not like the campaigns that 38 degrees run, but as your constituent I find this type of tool very useful. They enourage members to customize their email messages and I typically do. 38 degrees have estimated that you've received roughly 2 emails per day on average through them. Your attempt to reduce the visibility of your email address is at best fruitless. Furthermore it suggests a wish to become less easily contactable. Having already published an email address, the retraction of it appears cynical.

Andy Pryke said...

I think you should receive these emails, they are the easiest way for constituents to get in touch with you about issues they care about. Obviously you are likely to give personally written emails more weight.

The solution to receiving automated emails is to automatically respond. Once you have received several emails on a subject, you formulate a position and respond to your constituents with details of it. I'm sure there are many email tools which would help you with this.

My former MP had no problems doing this, and also retained a list of topics which constituents were interested in and send follow up information as votes took place in the house.

Andy Pryke

Bee said...

Ah, I see comments are now appearing. Since you are probably inundated with email today, I reproduce mine to you here:

Dear Mr Raab,

I am writing to you as a constituent to let you know that I strongly disagree with your position on 38degrees.org.uk and similar sites using your parliamentary email address. I believe constituents should be enabled and encouraged to contact you by any means they seem fit. Your job is to determine how best to respond to these contacts, not to restrict how such contacts are made. I resent the implication you made on the Radio 4 Today program this evening that 'real' constituents do not use these websites and that they are only used to by people with an agenda to badger you . Furthermore, the implication that such communications are stopping you from helping people in 'real need' is both facile and patronising. As my MP it is your job to represent my views in Parliament, and I demand the right to contact you however suits me in order that my views are known to you. I also believe that by not publishing your email address on your website, or on the House of Commons website, you are unnecessarily restricting access to you by your constituents. Your comment that it is 'easy to work out' an MPs email address is ridiculous; we shouldn't have to 'work it out', you should publish it prominantly where people can use it.

Please remember who you work for.

English European said...

"MPs get hundreds of emails and letters from constituents. I try to answer every one in reasonable time."

I think that's where you're going wrong. Of course you should reply to individual emails but mass template emails like this don't require a response.

Ed said...

Bee,
Your lot lost! Get over it and find a life.

Mark said...

Mr Raab,

I think it would be interesting to see the details of your communications with the Information Commissioner, if you have communicated with them in writing. 38 Degrees did publish details from their discourse, enabling us all to see what information was provided to the Commissioner and what the specific wording of the response was. Since you seem to have received very different results I think it would be interesting to see their reasoning.

Thanks for taking the time to communicate publicly on this.

Matthew said...

Mr Raab,

As someone who has worked in Parliament, and currently for a lobby organisation of sorts (human rights), I can thoroughly sympathise with your situation. Indeed I am currently in discussions with colleagues around raising issues with Parliamentarians (issues that constituents clearly have an interest in, and what to play a part in communicating) in a fashion that is more sustainable, especially given MPs significant workloads. I may well come and seek your personal advice at some stage.

As to some of the others who have commented on this page: just because MPs *represent* their constituents and are funded from central government, does not entitle constituents to have the slavish beck-and-call obedience of their MPs, whensoever and however they chose. We have somehow gotten this ludicrous idea that our representatives are somehow super-human, both in terms of moral standing and workrate: does any other person making comment on this page answer 200+ emails a day, and that being a tiny part of a daily job? Just a thought.

jaybutcher said...

It would appear that you've been receiving no more than 2 emails a day since you have been elected from 38degrees...

how does this even begin to come close to being too many emails for you to handle from constituents?

Dom Raab said...

Thanks Jay. 38 Degrees estimate 2 per day since the election - but that is on average. In reality, it means a burst of two hundred identical emails in a few days or week. That is from just one lobby group - there are numerous.

Mike said...

Seems to me that a simple request to a website has blown up out of all proportion.
Does it ever occur to anyone that 38 degres are LOVING this? Super publicity for them. Plus they have the cheek to publicise private communications between themselves and Dom Raab.
These lobby groups should honour the request and take Dom Raab's email address from their websites. Dom Raab can then put his email address back up knowing he's not going to get spammed to death. Constituents then can contact him knowing that he can give their communications the attention deserved.
Easy. Simple. And over all an ADULT approach.

brucesthomas said...

Dom, I think that a better solution to your problem would have been to approach the IT people that run parliament.co.uk. It surprises me that the government has not implemented a system for automatically correlating emails so that emails that contain largely identical content can be grouped into a folder and analysed as a group. I wonder too whether the parliament.co.uk emails are protected against electronic spam. A way to do this is to block all email from unknown addresses and send a reply which gives the sender the opportunity to unblock themselves. Generally electronic mail senders do not reply to incoming emails, so these remain blocked. Without some system for blocking computer generated spam and a system for electronically collating emails I would expect an MP to need several staff just to deal with emails. That seems to me to be a waste of someone's money. Sadly it is also a waste of energy trying to persuade spammers that the volume of email that they are sending is self-defeating. Rather than debating the pros and cons of Dom's action perhaps our time would be better spent in providing a think tank to devise a system for lobbying by the general public that woud enable MPs to study the results in an efficient and meaningful fashion.

Chris Lipson said...

As an intern that worked for an MP it seemed crazy at the time and still does to expect a personalised response to every email and letter from a constituent. The average population of any UK constituency is 68,175 (http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/elections-and-voting/constituencies/), it's too much to expect one MP to correspond with that scale of population. The use of a blog is excellent for an MP to collate all the correspondence received on a particular topic and formulate a response. To expect an individualised response as some sort of democratic response seems infantile - an MP that can both consult and transmit his thoughts is leadership - and that's what we want from our MP's.

Nick said...

"I actively encourage constituents (on my blog and website) to write to me, comment on my blog, email my association"

Erm, why not just provide your association's email address rather than your personal one then?

Most of the organisations in question get their list of MPs' email addresses from one of the handful of data providers in this field (GovEval, Dods or DeHavilland are the main ones) so once you've given the right address to them, you'll usually find that the various "email your MP" services start directing constituents' emails to that instead. It's what many MPs do.

Mind you, I don't really understand why receiving an email from a constituent who has used the 38ยบ website is all that different to receiving one through TWFY or your own contact form. Nor how it's much different from petitions or postcards for that matter, which presumably you do answer?

Dom Raab said...

There is a link to the association email, via blog and website, for those interested in getting involved - but local associations deal with political campaigning etc not an MP's Parliamentary responsibilities. That is a critical distinction. Hence, a separate email link if people want to contact me as an MP.

I have no issue with campaign groups sending me briefings or emails - they are valuable. I have an issue with being bombarded with hundreds of clone emails drowning out the messages from constituents in real need. These devices are a deliberate attempt to apply pressure tactics on behalf of special interests. Look at why 38 Degrees took on that title - it is the angle at which an avalanche falls. Their aim is to create an avalanche in MPs in-boxes. Others apply the same tactics, so spam filters won't solve it - that is why I want the right to opt out of them using my email for those purposes.

And, yes, I do think that a message that comes from a constituent taking the time and trouble to drop me a line, or in real need, is different from hundreds of clone emails processed by a lobby group.

I have to say, given some of the vitriolic abuse emailed to me over the last week (which I could not publish on this site) whipped up by 38 Degrees, I can only smile at the suggestion that their real aim is to help the disenfranchised.

Nick said...

"These devices are a deliberate attempt to apply pressure tactics on behalf of special interests."

Well, in a way, yes...but don't your constituents have a right to join together and campaign on particular issues, including by putting pressure on their MP to represent their views in Parliament?

I mean, that's not really different to how you got elected - through local people with a shared set of views forming a special interest group and then organising to ensure that other people who agreed with them all took action to bring about the outcome they wanted? It's just that in that particular case the special interest group was the Conservative Party and that their action was "bombarding" members of the public with "cloned message" in the form of your leaflets, and harass them by knocking on their door until they go and vote for you. Which they did.

It seems a shade hypocritical, therefore, to complain when constituents get together to undertake collective action on issues.

When you say "constituents in real need" you seem to be wanting to be able to separate out casework from political correspondence, and again that's fair enough but could be easily accomplished by providing the companies above with a separate email account managed by a member of staff.

Oh, and I still don't see why these objections don't hold for petitions and postcard campaigns. What are they, if not an avalanche of cloned messages, simply delivered on paper rather than by email?

Dom Raab said...

Lobby groups that bombard MPs with hundreds of emails on a single issue are clearly different from an election campaign. In the last one, a voter would typically receive three items of literature - and has the right to opt out of leaflets and emails. Pressure tactics would be counter-productive in the extreme.

The objection I make doesn't hold for petitions, because they involve one communication with a list of names not a deluge designed to absorb and distract the recipient.

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