Citizen Action Monitor

Is anyone reading those emails we send to politicians?

Here’s what some people have to say about their experiences – from Ralph Nader on down to Citizen Doe

No 1599 Posted by fw, February 21, 2016

I’ll chip in my two cents worth up front. I’m a late comer to emailing politicians. I really haven’t had enough experience to form an evidence-based decision on the results of my efforts. However, so far, I would say, “So far, not so good,” in the sense that out of about 15 submissions I have received just two replies — one helpful, from the NDP, the other not, from the Liberals.

Regardless, even if I seldom if ever get a response, I would still submit my feedback to politicians because I write for my own pleasure and satisfaction. It helps me to define to myself who I am, what I care about, and what action I’m willing myself to take: for in the words of Thomas Huxley, “The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”

In addition, writing disciplines me to assemble my evidence, think logically and critically through an issue, and express my viewpoint clearly, cogently and without personal prejudice. I’m still working on the “without personal prejudice” aspect.

And as I have written elsewhere in this blog: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” – William James

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Ralph Nader on his letter-writing experience to presidents Bush and Obama

On April 8, 2015, Ralph Nader posted to his blog, blog.nader.org, his open letter to President Barack Obama, which begins:

Dear President Obama,

Nader_ReturnTo_Sender_150dpi_largeI am enclosing a copy of Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President 2001-2015 (Seven Stories Press), which contains over 100 letters that I sent to you and President George W. Bush (from 2001 to 2015). They were almost entirely unanswered and unacknowledged.

Nader goes on to relate that Obama’s correspondence director promised to “get back to me” on whether or not any consideration had been given to establishing a specific policy regarding responses to letters from the public. “He did not,” writes Nader. The closest he comes to a positive note is the response he did get from Michelle Obama’s staff to say that the president “had no time” to address a meeting of leaders of the non-profit civic community.

If even the mighty Ralph Nader can’t get answers to his letters to political leaders, what are the prospects for the rest of us mere mortals?

Ralph’s letter is worth a read because he shares his thoughts on the several benefits of writing letters to politicians for both sides:

For citizens, correspondence provides an opportunity to circumvent the barriers presented by the media and the bureaucracy to directly contact a political figure;

For politicians, emails and letters convey thoughts and observations that alert the public servant to conditions, issues, and urgencies at hand and occasionally provide an opportunity to publically discuss point raised;

Letters can be very valuable by asking questions that offer public figures an opportunity to respond on matters or issues not ordinarily addressed by the press or government circles; and

Letters allow citizens to bring to the attention of the president the failure of cabinet level officials to respond to citizen concerns brought to their attention.

Nader offers three recommendations to address the non-response issue, the second of which praises then PM Stephen Harper:

  1. Issue a policy on responding to letters with whatever classification you choose to make so that people can know what to expect.
  2. At the very least, these active citizens should receive an acknowledgement of receipt of their letters and emails. This is what the Prime Minister of Canada does, regardless of whether the letters are supportive or critical. Additionally, the prime minister refers letters to the appropriate ministry for further review. Without even an acknowledgement, citizens might become cynical and/or stop writing.
  3. Have your staff select the letters with ideas, proposals or suggestions that they think would make a good annual public report to the American people. Include critical letters that point out shortcomings. This has a salutary effect on “the bubble” and goes beyond the few letters that all presidents use as political props.

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Does emailing/contacting your MP ever work?

A Google search retrieved a reddit.com page, dated April 29, 2013, offering some surprisingly helpful comments and suggestions re contacting your MP/MPP. (To access the source of the original readers’ comments, click on the above linked title. A selection of the 26 comments is reposted below without the name of the contributor).

Here’s the question that prompted the comments:

I’m a younger Canadian, only been able to vote in a federal election once and I’ve recently started to take an interest in politics. I have to say, I am disgusted. The way Parliament acts, attack ads, the whole works. Disgusting. I am planning on emailing my MP to raise my concerns but I’m wondering if anyone has had any luck/success stories with contacting MPs. I’m contacting him either way, just curious.

Here’s the pick of the response crop from a former political staffer (federal and provincial)

Generally, it really depends on the issue you’re contacting them about, and the method that you employed.

If you are contacting your MP because of an issue with EI, citizenship, federal projects in your area, etc., then your concerns are best addressed to their constituency office.

If you’re writing to your MP to share your opinion, then your best course of action is to contact their parliamentary/legislative office. Now, it all depends on the MP, but 99% of the time the most you’re going to get back is a pre-written statement that was drafted by a staffer and approved by the MP. The way you contact us is also the response we gave, so letters sent to the office received a printed + signed letter in response.

All the letters are catalogued and sorted to determine their relevancy on certain issues, but it’s certainly not going to change an MP’s opinion just because you wrote a strongly-worded letter. I worked for a pro-choice MP who would get bombarded with anti-abortion letters, even if it wasn’t up for debate. We’d mention it whenever it seemed like there was a spike in letters (organized campaign, mostly by church groups) but always applied the standard response.

You may not think it’s “fair” that your opinion is being marginalized, but MPs get hundreds, if not thousands of emails/letters/calls per day, the vast majority of which are organized PR campaigns. It was hilarious to hear someone complain about us replying to them with a pre-written statement when they’re just one of a 100 people that put their name and email into a petition site.

Most important point: Unless you’re contacting your MP, the Minister(s) responsible for the issue you’re concerned about or the relevant party critic(s), don’t bother. MPs represent their constituents, first and only. Staffers have carte blanche to toss correspondence (mostly emails) from people who live outside of the riding.

Citizen volunteer for MPP says “email from a constituent does matter.”

I volunteer at my MP’s constituency office and volunteer for an MPP of Ontario at Queen’s Park. Emails that are sent, at least by the people that I volunteer for, get looked at and they receive responses. I know from the work I’ve done, an email from a constituent does matter.

Speaker of the House sends “thoughtful response” to this Ottawa area respondent

I have contacted my MP (John Baird CPC) three times, and got three boilerplate replies containing the usual party propaganda but no answer to what was asked – signature stamped at the bottom by some party staffer.

I contacted my provincial MPP (Bob Chiarelli, Ontario Liberal Party) once, and received a boilerplate reply containing the usual party propaganda but no answer to what was asked – signature stamped at the bottom by some party staffer.

Once, a few years back, I contacted the speaker of the House (Peter Milliken Liberal Party Canada) and received a 2-page thoughtful response. I didn’t agree with that response, but the fact that he took the time to actually address my questions/concerns as opposed to having some party staffer pull the most appropriate boilerplate letter beginning with

Dear Constituent, thank you for your thoughtful letter. As your MP/MPP I to am concerned with blah blah blah. Our party strives to blah blah blah…..

… with a patently obvious ink stamp signature at the bottom, increased my respect for him considerably.

It all depends who your MP/MPP is and what your problem is

For four years, I lived across the street from the residence of Olivia Chow (the MP for my riding, Trinity-Spadina) and the late Jack Layton.

Being an NDP supporter, I didn’t have too many qualms to report to the couple. I was, however, becoming increasingly worried by the signs of urban decay in the area. I’m no fan of Rudy Giuliani’s “broken window” theory, but the graffiti and garbage that littered China Town had taken its toll on Toronto’s inner-city. It was a self-propagating problem.

So I dropped a letter off in Ms. Chow’s mailbox, asking her to vote in favor of an upcoming budget proposal which aimed at urban renewal. The budget failed, so Ms. Chow took matters into her own hands.

She invited street artists, volunteers and even extended me an invitation to help renew the area. Over the course of weeks, we cleaned up the streets, brought in new public trash bins and even got artists to paint original murals in the most worn-down alleys!

So yeah, contacting my Parliament representative worked. It all depends on who that representative is, and what your problem is!

MP doesn’t have much power for things that I care about, but they can help in certain other cases.

I’ve contacted my MP several times in the past by email and gotten well written responses, albeit some of them felt like they were simply copied and pasted and didn’t always address my concerns as well as I’d hope they would. Overall though, the responses were simply trying to keep me happy rather than actually doing anything about the issue.

I’ve also called a candidate asking for her views on certain issues (e.g. improving transit in my area) who then later became the MP in my riding. I followed up her election promises throughout the course of her term and while she seemed to really be trying to fulfill her promises, they never materialized. However, I’ve noticed for immigration cases, people I’ve known have been able to get their sponsored immigration cases fast-tracked/moved along more quickly after complaining to their MP.

In terms of how parliament acts, I’ve voiced my opinion on a few important bills that Harper had tried to pass a few years ago. While my Liberal MP agreed with my stance, she couldn’t do much. The reality is, if Harper wants something passed, he’ll find a way and there’s seriously nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried multiple times and failed.

I guess from this I’ve learned that at the end of the day, a single MP doesn’t have much power for things that I care about, but they can help in certain other cases.

Depends on your MP and which party

Depends on your MP and which party. Any time I have written cabinet ministers, I have gotten a form letter which completely ignores the questions asked – it’s a bit like watching question period; question gets answered, and the response parrots the talking points about the Economic Action Plan and the “NDP Job-killing carbon tax”.

Similarly, if I write my local (opposition) MP, I get have gotten responses that are at least written by a human and directly address the letter.

Letting them know your opinion is still valuable

Like people are saying, it depends on the MP and on the issue. I’ve gotten personalized emails back from MPs, I’ve gotten form letter type email responses, and I’ve gotten requests for my mailing address with a mailed letter follow-up (likely this was to ensure I actually live in the riding). Even if you don’t hear back from them individually, letting them know your opinion is still valuable, especially when the next election comes around.

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Do Politicians Read the Emails You Send Them? by John Light, Moyers & Company, December 26, 2012

Interesting article worth reading. Here’s a summary of the main points –

The Internet has made it easier for constituents to send messages to the politicians who represent them — messages to Congress quadrupled between 1995 and 2004 — but it’s less certain that anyone is actually reading those messages.

Between 2007 and 2010, University of Bologna and NYU-Florence political scientist Christian Vaccari sent emails to 142 political parties and presidential candidates in seven western democracies, including the U.S., to gauge how each responded. He sent two emails to each party and candidate: One asked for the party or candidate’s position on taxes, the other asked for information about how to get involved as a volunteer. Vaccari subsequently reported that only one in five of his emails received a reply within one business day; the majority of the emails, almost two-thirds, went unanswered. Vaccari found that, in general, parties tended to respond more often than individual candidates, and progressive parties tended to respond more often than conservative parties. Vaccari also found that, overall, U.S. parties and candidates responded less often than in the six other western democracies he looked at: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.

Another political advocacy and communications consultant says many emails may not be read right away, or, possibly, at all. Staffers may be overloaded; emails from constituents might end up filed in a lengthy backlog. She adds, “When we’re talking about email or online petition signatures, it’s hard to weed out who is an actual person in their district.”

Signing an online petition might feel like advocacy, but if the petition is sent to a politician that the signer doesn’t help to elect, the petition may hold less weight. The same applies to form letters to legislators provided by many advocacy websites.

On the plus side, “Sending an email is totally fine. Just do your best to make sure the email doesn’t read or sound like a form letter. And make sure you say you’re a constituent. If I was going to write a letter to my congressman, I would include some detail about my neighborhood, if relevant to the subject of your email.

“Social media provides a very important mechanism to communicate directly with people about issues that often don’t get the attention they deserve by the mainstream media,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote in an email. “We have seen, for example, lively and smart conversations on my Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

“Twitter helps me get a sense of what folks are talking about,” says Senator Claire McCaskill wrote to us in a Twitter direct message. “Forces me to make direct contact with Missourians every day which keeps me grounded. And I love that it’s one place where no one edits me!”

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