The Dim-Post

June 30, 2011

What’s the best way to influence MPs?

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 6:52 am

Some of the left-wing bloggers in the US are debating the merits of writing letters to elected representatives regarding key issues. Matthew Yglesias argues that this is surprisingly effective; Balloon-Juice makes this point:

Several staffers told me that until we started calling and writing about the Affordable Care Act, almost every call they got came from [Glen] Beck fans screaming about crap like death panels and the gold standard. The only other feedback that most of them had to work with was CNN replaying clips of Barney Frank debating whether to give up. Congress jumps at every rightwing whim at least in part because their media does an excellent job motivating a pissed-off rabble to phone their Reps. This is not even a bug – democracy should work like that. Congresspersons must respect feedback from constituents. It is their job.

Other commentators note that e-mails aren’t that effective but letters and faxes and phone calls are. But that’s the US – any staffers or politicians in the house want to offer up their opinions and advice on this issue from a New Zealand perspective? (One press sec I know tells me a surprising amount of his Minister’s correspondence is from the mentally ill.) What’s the best way to communicate with an MP on an issue, and is there much point in doing so?

Update: A staffer for a senior politician writes:

There is no hard and fast way to best influence MP’s. It largely comes down to how individual MP’s deal with correspondence. For example, my MP manages their parliamentary email account so they receive and read all correspondence from constituents. Others, however, do not. Therefore, email may not be the most effective way to influence MP’s.

Calling MP’s is, in my opinion, the worst way to influence MP’s. 9 times out of 10 the MP in question will not have time to deal with non-urgent phone calls and, more often than not, just can’t be bothered talking to a constituent anyway. For example, my MP never takes calls from constituents and will rarely bother contacting people who have left messages.

In my opinion one of the most effective ways to influence MP’s, besides face to face meetings, is to write an old fashioned letter. My MP pays particular attention to hand written letters and letters sent in from people in a personal capacity. Pro-forma letters, for example letters from lobbyists, are almost always disregarded.

All EA’s sort through mail each morning and compile a folder usually labeled “today’s mail”, “constituent mail” etc etc and MP’s will read each letter (besides pro-forma rubbish). Any letter that requires a response will be marked by the MP and filed. In most cases the EA, but sometimes the MP, will draft a response and, upon approval, enter into correspondence with the constituent. MP’s always read their mail and will always respond to letters from people in their electorate. The best way to get an MP’s attention is to make clear that you are a constituent and that the MP is your representative. The MP is then obligated to read the letter, consider it and, where necessary, respond.

Without a doubt though, the best way to influence an MP is through face to face discussions. However, it is incredibly difficult to obtain a meeting even with the lowliest of backbenchers. You either have to be somebody or you have to know somebody. This option is not available to ordinary folk.

Ultimately, if you want to influence an MP you need to know how their office works or how Parliament works. So if a person was serious about getting something done ones best bet would be to enlist someone who knows the inner workings of Parliament. Again, this isn’t an option available to most people though.

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49 Comments »

  1. Problem we have in New Zealand is that half the Mp’s are party list beholden and thus one step removed from the voting constituants. No amount of voter discontent effects them until their party slips in the polls.

    Writen, emailed, face to face or any other constituant representation is not going to alter their party line stance. Their primary allegiance is to the party, secondarily to the nationwide constituants.

    Many things are good with MMP but the non electorate voted party list membership ranking is a glaring offside.

    Comment by Gerrit — June 30, 2011 @ 7:29 am

  2. The impression I have is that non-form letters and enailscan be quite effective – and form ones can be if in sufficient bulk to show a high level of concern.

    As a minor elected personage myself I definitely do value community feedback and love it when constituents contact me about stuff, even when we disagree there is something to learn and I see those discussions as an important part of encouraging people to get involved with politics.

    In terms of List vs electorate MPs – my observation is that all MPs are pretty beholden to party policy (or more accurately caucus policy). However many List MPs stand in electorates, often marginal ones, and all politicians are looking for issues from their community that they can support and assist with. There’s nothing quite like taking on an issue and assisting folks to win, or at least make things a bit better.

    And hello Gerrit, long time no see *waves*

    Comment by Julie — June 30, 2011 @ 8:25 am

  3. It’s not just a question of where an MP’s allegiances lie. MPs are people like the rest of us, and like the rest of us, their views are informed by the range of opinions they encounter and the frequency with which they are expressed. Obviously my letter won’t have much effect on its own, or it might be counterproductive, but it still makes a contribution to an MP’s perception of what other people think.

    If people with our sensible views don’t contact them, we leave them to believe those nutters on the other side who won’t shut up represent popular opinion.

    As to effectiveness, my feeling is that talking in person is the best way of influencing anybody. Lobbyists don’t lobby by writing polite letters…

    Comment by Stephen Judd — June 30, 2011 @ 8:43 am

  4. Problem we have in New Zealand is that half the Mp’s are party list beholden and thus one step removed from the voting constituants. No amount of voter discontent effects them until their party slips in the polls.

    As opposed to those in safe electorates, for whom voter discontent is something that affects other people, because a dead dog would be elected if it was wearing the right colour rosette?

    Obviously, politicians make a political calculation about people who write to them about controversial issues: “are these people who would vote for me anyway?” “Is public opinion enough to threaten my career”. That’s how it should be; that’s them doing their job. It sucks when you’re on the wrong side of those calculations. The answer is to get more friends, make more noise, and alter the equation.

    Comment by Idiot/Savant — June 30, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  5. Quoting the OIA in your letter (to Ministers at least) is always a good idea, then they have to take your letter seriously.
    Can definitely second the quote about the mentally ill, same for local MP’s electorate offices.
    With regards to list MP’s many of them have electorate offices, usually in the seat they are standing in.
    They would all love to win seats so they arent at the whims of party bosses etc, so they act as though they are the local MP, and are always chasing good publicity.

    The least accountable/most useless MP’s are in electorates where there is a very strong majority, see Alan Peachey (who?), Ross Robertson amongst others, thye are the people that have done hteir time, and need to be renewed, but of course renewal needs the party bosses top ush it along so party control has positives too.

    Comment by Luke — June 30, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  6. Note that the relative size of NZ and US makes a huge difference. US House Districts have populations of 500K+, and most people live in states more populous than NZ. It’s arguably easier to influence every list MP in NZ than one California Senator, as long as you have access to a fax machine.

    Comment by bradluen — June 30, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  7. Input to MPs from ordinary people does work – if only because most MPs tend to listen to their senior departmental heads, and they have been thoroughly politicised by the treasury disease of unthinking adherence to the market.

    To digress, listening to Roger Kerr yesterday on nine-to-noon yesterday should have dispelled from anyone’s mind that the civil service – particularly treasury – is non political. Listening to Kerr was a frightening experience. The man is clearly crazy as a loon, but in a really, really scarily calm, rational and clear eyed kind of way. His unwavering fanaticism was astonishing to behold. His boast that he had singled minded colonised Treasury with like minded fanatics to ensure absolute policy capture forever was astounding in it’s bare faced frankness. The man clearly believes his economic prescription is unassailable!

    Imagine the uproar and threat of insurrection if, after finally becoming a major coalition partner in the 2020 election, new finance minister Jane Kelsey went on nine to noon to announce she was appointing John Minto to head treasury, to make sure it was colonised with hand-picked economists from the Castro and Chavez regimes to ensure the government got the best advice on how to implement her new Bolivarian socialist agenda.

    Comment by Sanctuary — June 30, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  8. “a surprising amount of his Minister’s correspondence is from the mentally ill”

    It’s against protocol to refer to Cabinet meetings this way you know…

    Comment by garethw — June 30, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  9. Any feedback direct to an MP is more likely to work than bitching on the blogs is. Mail probably works better than e-mail in the US becuase they really haven’t got with the whole electronic thing – they still write paper cheques for most stuff.

    I think the key is for it to be reasoned. A 2 line e-mail that says “I disagree with xyz” is never going to work as well as sitting down and writing the 5 best reasons you have why a particular thing should or shouldn’t happen. Shows you actually care, you thought about it, and (yes) that you aren’t mentally ill. I’d also say making it fair and balanced, and not just repeating the talking points (from the left or the right) would probably give it a lot more weight.

    Random thoughts:
    – when they say that a surprising amount of correspondence is from the mentally ill – does that mean that they just don’t agree with it? Or that they are genuinely mentally ill?
    – when people say “those nutters on the other side” does that mean anyone I don’t agree with, or does it mean that mostly only nutters on either side write letters, and if you want to have impact, try not to be a nutter – the MP might be so surprised to have someone sane writing to them that they actually do something?

    Comment by PaulL — June 30, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  10. Well, I was watching the news late night when the stuff about Turners and Growers and kiwifruit came on, and I thought, engaging in a slagging match with the minister is probably not the way to go.

    Comment by lyndon — June 30, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  11. No genuinely mentally ill – like they believe that aliens have abducted them or that people are following them everywhere (this is sometimes true but almost always not) or that god will destroy us all or their food is being irradiated by satellites. Take it from one whose MP also receives a surprising proportion of correspondence from the mentally ill :)

    Comment by Amy — June 30, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  12. My first job included opening all correspondence in a ministers office during the civil union debate. That was fun…

    Comment by max — June 30, 2011 @ 10:36 am

  13. By “correspondence from the mentally ill” I think he might mean people who read in Investigate magazine that the government is putting flouride in the water to poison their children while also sending out death rays from cellphone towers.

    Comment by Hobbes — June 30, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  14. as opposed to correspondence from people with bipolar disorder and anorexia nervosa who are frustrated that they’re not considered sick enough to get treatment because they;re well enough to know that they need it.

    Comment by Kahikatea — June 30, 2011 @ 10:52 am

  15. when they say that a surprising amount of correspondence is from the mentally ill – does that mean that they just don’t agree with it? Or that they are genuinely mentally ill?

    Let me rephrase it – a lot of the letters are, apparently, about aliens.

    Comment by danylmc — June 30, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  16. Having worked in the Ministerial team of a Government Department, I can say that most letters are not actually read by MPs (at a senior level anyway). They have folks who read them, forward them on to the Department and then we crafted the letters back (“thank you for your letter, I believe this that and those and here’s why that’s better for the country”.

    Comment by Some Guy — June 30, 2011 @ 11:00 am

  17. Ah. Of course, to those who believe in aliens (or 9/11 conspiracy theories) the rest of us probably look insane. But I’ll agree, if the letter is about aliens, then fair assumption that the person needs some help.

    Comment by PaulL — June 30, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  18. Whatever you do, don’t take them to the rugby or a Jon Bon Jovi concert. That has absolutely no effect on their decisions.

    Comment by Jordan — June 30, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  19. What if it’s about illegal aliens?

    Comment by Gregor W — June 30, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  20. “His boast that he had singled minded colonised Treasury with like minded fanatics to ensure absolute policy capture forever was astounding in it’s bare faced frankness. The man clearly believes his economic prescription is unassailable!”

    I think, Sanctuary, that your interpretation of Kerr’s ideology has led to some ex-post re-imagining of the actual words that he used. I am not a fan of Kerr’s, but methinks your own ideological fanaticism is blinding you a little bit. Listen again to the interview. All that he really said on the matter of populating treasury was that in the late 1970s he thought that Roderick Dean did a better job of recruiting the best and brightest than Treasury did, and that he made a point of going to the Universities in later years to try to sell Treasury to the best and brightest. Now, you can interpret Kerr saying `best and brightest’ as really meaning `people who think the same things as me’, but that is a huge leap. As I said., I am not fan of Kerr, but I think that your own ideological bias is blinding you to reality somewhat (ironically, the kind of thing that you accuse him of).

    Comment by DT — June 30, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  21. My e-mail to Tau Henare must have been effective when writing in support of the so-called anti-smacking Bill. His one word reply was “Idiot!” The following day John Key announce the about turn and that they would all be voting for the Bill, including Tau. So you see emails are very effective.

    Comment by Ianmac — June 30, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  22. “…Now, you can interpret Kerr saying `best and brightest’ as really meaning `people who think the same things as me’, but that is a huge leap…”

    hmmm, I consider less a huge leap than a step over a tifling puddle. I think you underestimate the zealotry of Kerr and co.

    Comment by Sanctuary — June 30, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  23. Maybe Sanctuary. I guess if you have a lot of familiarity with him you could have a go at reading between the lines that way. But I don’t think that most listeners would have inferred what you did.

    Comment by DT — June 30, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  24. Waterboarding? (in answer to the original question posed)

    Comment by Sam — June 30, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  25. Sanctuary frothing with class warfare zealotry? … doesn’t sound right

    Comment by will — June 30, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  26. I’ve found people can be responsive if you “like” them and then post on their Facebook page. Possibly due to its public nature.

    Comment by irrational — June 30, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  27. what is a “tifling” puddle. Rather like a slithy tove I imagine? I know some people who think it is fun to bate MPs on their Facebook pages with well researched and insightful comments that show up their hypocrisy – but I can never be bothered myself.

    Comment by Amy — June 30, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  28. Sanctuary wrote: “hmmm, I consider less a huge leap than a step over a tifling puddle. I think you underestimate the zealotry of Kerr and co.”

    sure, I can believe he meant stacking treasury with people who agree with him – it was just the claim that he had actually said it that was implausible.

    Incidentally, when he said they shifted to recruiting the ‘best and brightest’, he may have meant they shifted to taking their pick of people from a wide range of academic backgrounds, rather than just choosing people with qualified in relevant disciplines like economics, finance and accounting. By doing this they get people who have no knowledge of economics other than what Treasury choose to teach them, which may well make them less likely to question the Treasury orthodoxy.

    Comment by Kahikatea — June 30, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  29. Indeed Amy, or even to ‘bait’ them

    Comment by Kahikatea — June 30, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  30. Kahikatea, that is my experience with Treasury, who once tried to recruit me. They have a minority of trained economists with a diverse understanding of the topic, but plenty of smart sorts from other disciplines. They are given a short training in the `truth’ of economics, and over about two years working there they gradually gravitate towards the monolithic view of the world, and analytical approach.

    Comment by DT — June 30, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  31. “A staffer for a senior politician writes”

    Gee that was depressing. The staffer shows that democracy in this country isn’t really democratic, as it is full of difficulties. I don’t really think MP’s are going to change their position on a policies just because they get letters in opposition from their constituents. Gerrit said it right in the first comment – politicians must follow the party line first- their loyality is to their party first (unless I’m guessing if there was a conscience vote). i also think it depends on whether the MP is in opposition or in government. In opposition letters from constituents will give them a real idea of how public policies is affecting people’s lives but in Governement it is quite different.

    Comment by K2 — June 30, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  32. “What’s the best way to communicate with an MP on an issue”

    Casually discuss the issue while doing some free tiling at their holiday house?

    Comment by gn — June 30, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  33. Alternatively, one could have a few informal discussions over complimentary cigars in a corporate box at a U2 concert. Just be sure not to get punched in the face while enjoying a nice puff.

    Comment by Hobbes — June 30, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  34. gn wrote: “Casually discuss the issue while doing some free tiling at their holiday house?”

    IIRC that didn’t work for the Thai gentleman in question.

    Comment by Kahikatea — June 30, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

  35. I had a great interaction with a government MP who was new to the job and took her job very seriously. We met about a policy issue: I discussed my research on the topic, she gave me a list of things she welcomed additional information on, I think we both went away happy.

    And then Tony Ryall told her what the party line was. She no longer wanted research or interaction. She voted with the Party and against the research. So I guess I’m with Gerrit here.

    Comment by MeToo — June 30, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  36. Actually, I’m not with Gerrit here – the MP was an electorate MP and I wasn’t a constituent – I was agreeing with his point about MPs being influenced most by their party.

    BUT I think this has nothing to do with MMP and everything to do with party discipline and the party system. Most MPs, if they have lost the argument within their caucus, vote with the party line. You can only vote against your own party so many times before you have used up all your political capital. You would have to be a real superstar in your electorate to be able to withstand that. In this particular case I think the MP decided the issue was not worth the fallout that would have happened should she go up against an operator like Ryall.

    Comment by MeToo — June 30, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  37. K2 — party policy doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It is informed by and moderated by public opinion. Example: the mining backdown after public opinion became massively clear. And how does the party assess public opinion? Polls are one measure, but things that take investment on the part of the public, like long handwritten letters, personal visits to electorate offices, etc, demonstrate how seriously the public holds the opinion.

    I guess my feeling is that most of us only have options that are weakly effective, but that’s not the same as completely useless. It would be bad to exchange weak effectiveness for complete and self-chosen powerlessness.

    Comment by Stephen Judd — June 30, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  38. Aren’t all aliens illegal? Doubt any of them get visas to visit. ;-)

    Comment by Julie Fairey — June 30, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

  39. I guess my feeling is that most of us only have options that are weakly effective, but that’s not the same as completely useless. It would be bad to exchange weak effectiveness for complete and self-chosen powerlessness.

    A good point, but I was also dismayed to read the staffer’s response.
    Maybe it also has something to do with our low power-distance culture where we expect straighforward access to the political process?

    Comment by Gregor W — June 30, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

  40. @Stephen: “party policy doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It is informed by and moderated by public opinion”

    Ahh not really. Just look at Labour- they did (and or still doing) most of their policy formation behind close doors (without much influence of the membership like it used to be). Parties have senior advisors and policy researchers and also might have a powerful group of individuals who back the party and want to see certain policies initiated (for example National and the Business Roundtable). If public opinion is considered as part of party policy then is purely for opportunistic reasons (eg former rogernome campaigning against assets sales).

    “Example: the mining backdown after public opinion became massively clear.”
    The government backdown because it was unpopular with a certain group of voters- the swing voters that voted National last election. If it was a whole bunch of angry beneficaries marching down Queens st now my guess is they wouldn’t of cared. National clearly didn’t want to back down but did so for opportunistic reasons. I’m not exchanging weak effectiveness with self chosen powerlessness, I just not naive to believe that our individual opinions matter that much to MPs

    Comment by K2 — June 30, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  41. Example: the mining backdown after public opinion became massively clear.

    C’mon Stephen, do you honestly believe the Nats ever intended to mine Mt Aspiring or Gt. Barrier Island? That was just one of their “pretend to cede to public opinion in order to appear moderate” games. Surely.

    Comment by Progger — June 30, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

  42. Having been involved in some of this stuff I’d say:

    Personal letters make a difference, but it will only ever be one factor amongst others. If you are arguing something fundamentally against the MP or Partys ideology you probably won’t get far. Likewise, there are a lot of things MPs would like to be able to do, but realistically can’t.

    Numbers make a difference. On lots of issues you either have very little profile, meaning that one letter won’t really be enough to grab the MPs or Ministers attention, or is very high profile, in which case the letters in favour are matched by those opposed.

    As well as people with genuine mentail illnesses, there are a lot of people that are on the ranting/mentally ill borderline. In areas where MPs/Ministers could be swayed, a ranting letter won’t achieve as much movement as a reasoned one. On that, it is also helpful if you have some vague idea of a solution to the problem you are raising. In lots of cases MPs and Ministers recognise the problem, but there isn’t a reasonable solution. I suspect that quite often that is because the problem is tough, but if you can propose something that makes sense Ministers will often push Departments to explain why they can’t do what is being proposed, or if they can’t explain to look at it more closely.

    Comment by BeShakey — June 30, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  43. Hey, I’m not saying public opinion DETERMINES party policy. I’m just saying parties take note of it.

    Comment by Stephen Judd — June 30, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

  44. 38.Aren’t all aliens illegal? Doubt any of them get visas to visit.

    They could be coming here to claim asylum?
    Alternatively, if you’ve managed to cross the vast interstellar distances required to get here, you’ve probably bought enough SPACE CASH or valuable technology with you to qualify as a migrant investor…

    Comment by Phil — June 30, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

  45. The MP to elector ratio is important.

    It has been a very long time since I last looked at this but elector access to MP has been very high in NZ.
    Certainly higher than in most “democracies”.

    The more MP’s we have the better.

    Comment by peterlepaysan — June 30, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

  46. The plural of MP is MPs. Not MP’s.

    I know I shouldn’t assume that people who use superfluous apostrophes etc are stupid. It’s probably just that staffers of senior politicians and their ilk have many difficult and important things to get their heads around, and it’s expecting too much for them to also understand difficult concepts like apostrophes and human-induced climate change.

    Comment by Will Truth — June 30, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  47. This is an astounding admission:

    However, it is incredibly difficult to obtain a meeting even with the lowliest of backbenchers. You either have to be somebody or you have to know somebody. This option is not available to ordinary folk.

    That’s exactly why we have started Your NZ, so “ordinary folk” are talked to, listened to and represented by their MP. As they should be.

    Comment by Pete George — July 1, 2011 @ 8:02 am

  48. Is it an admission? Or is it just a statement from someone on a blog? Pete, you’ve gone from a sometimes sensible blog commenter to someone who uses every vaguely related opportunity to promote your political vehicle.

    Comment by PaulL — July 1, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  49. “A staffer for a senior politician writes:” is “just a statement from someone on a blog”?

    Maybe it doesn’t bother you about being excluded from access to politicians and feeling ignored after they take your vote off to use for their party, but from what I hear there’s a lot of people out there who don’t like it.

    Comment by Pete George — July 1, 2011 @ 12:59 pm


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