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MP's Got Mail... And It's a Problem

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
May, 2002

Members of Parliament offices are being overloaded with e-mail. MPs need new strategies to handle the flood. Hillwatch outlines the possible solutions.

The volume of e-mail messages now directed at Members of Parliament is overwhelming correspondence systems built to handle letters.  Consequently, many e-mail messages are ignored or handled using horse and buggy methods. Here are some of the problems.

  • People previously hesitant to write a letter to a Member of Parliament are more willing to send e-mail.  This has increased the overall volume.
  • The web simplifies the production and cost of mass mailings. Some activist groups have supporters blanket Members of Parliament with canned e-mails on this or that issue. This means thousands of e-mails saying the same thing filling MPs in-box. Depending on your point of view, this is either legitimate political expression or political spam.
  • This means more e-mails come from outside the MPs’ ridings. Most MPs don’t have the resources or incentive to divert staff from constituency matters to answering non-constituent e-mails.
  • Most MP offices work hard to respond to e-mails from constituents.  But there is no postmark on e-mail. Unless the e-writer identifies himself or herself as a constituent and provides a home address (and many don’t) there is no way to determine the writer's location.
  • Most MPs offices are under-funded under-staffed and under-trained when it comes to electronic mail & web related technologies.
  • So far, the Government Online initiative has focused on getting government information and services online, not enhancing digital democracy initiatives.
  • Some problems are attitudinal.  Some MPs are uncomfortable with the Internet and e-mail. They believe in personal contact not virtual connections. They see e-mail as too easy to do and simply not as serious as a letter.

Since the matter has not been publicly studied, it is difficult to gauge the magnitude of the problem.  There has been work done in the US. The Congress Online Project recently issued a report entitled, e-mail Overload in Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis.  US Senators are getting as much as 55,000 e-mails a month, and House Members 8,000. They are being swamped and rushing to get processes in place to manage the flood.

Canadian Members of Parliament are unlikely to receive anywhere near these volumes.  But, with fewer staff and smaller budgets, there is no reason to think they are in any better shape.

One earnest Canadian decided to test how e-mail-responsive Members of Parliament are by sending each of them an e-mail claiming to be a constituent and asking a question that required a relatively simple response. Only 43% of those contacted had responded after a month.  Maybe some detected the gentleman’s subterfuge, explaining the low response rate.  But anecdotal comments from Hill staff suggest many e-mail don’t get responses.

The problem with ignoring e-mail, most especially e-mail from constituents, is that an increasing number of Canadians regard it as their normal means of communication. This is how they write to co-workers, friends and family. The people who they e-mail usually reply to their e-mails quickly. For over 50% of the Canadian population this is just becoming the way things are done. MPs who don’t adapt may appear a little dated and find themselves marginally less competitive in some voters’ eyes.

Most MPs would welcome a workable solution to their e-mail problems. Based on the Best Practices we see evolving in the US, here are a few options MPs could consider using the technology and software already available to their offices.

Use auto responders: You immediately acknowledge receipt of the e-mail.  You also take the opportunity to explain how you handle e-mail.  For example:

Explain the volume of regular mail and e-mail received and indicate the number of days on average before a reply can be expected

State your priority is to respond to constituents. Ask Constituents, if they have not done so to clearly state that they are a constituent and provide their home mailing address and a phone number. Encourage them to resend their e-mail with that information or direct them to web form on your web site where they can do this easily.

For non-constituents, thank them for their e-mail and explain it may not be possible to reply to every e-mail but that you post your positions on the important issues of the day on your web site and provide the link.

Filter incoming e-mail by location, need and issue: Some constituents will need a phone call to follow up on their problem. Some can receive a standard reply based on their issue. Non-constituents can be referred to the issues section of your web site.

Divert Traffic to your web site:  For the reason stated above. There are issues that MPs are asked to respond to repeatedly (capital punishment, abortion, gun laws).  There are other issues that reflect the hot issue of the moment (GMO, Terrorism, Anthrax). If Members are timely in posting their positions and providing background from party spokespeople, constituents are being educated where to find the MPs position without sending e-mails.  They are also providing a ready response vehicle for those that do. The web reply form meets the Members’ core need to distinguish between the constituents and non-constituents.

Change the Find Your MP Using Your Postal Code feature on the Parliament of Canada Site: Change it to a web form that requires a name and address for the sender and whether or not the person is a constituent.  If some people are not getting replies to their current e-mails, it makes no sense to provide a functionality that appears official but does not deliver the goods.

Negotiate: Chances are that 80% of the issue spam is coming from 20% of the activist groups. It is a dumb tactic. The more sophisticated groups have already gravitated to systems that encourage people to target their individual MPs and provide their home addresses. Work out some protocols. Ask the other groups to follow the agreed model. If persuasion does not work, your choice is to put up with it or have the House of Commons ISP target and block the worst offenders.

Fund and Train: MPs need more funding for improved sites and their staff needs specialized training and systems support in how to manage the flood of e-mail that is only going to increase in volume year after year.

The e-mail flood initially presents itself as a problem.  But astute incumbents recognize that when you have someone’s e-mail address, their home address and the issues that concern them – it is also an opportunity.  To get to the opportunity, you have to first manage the problem.

After September 11th and the Anthrax threat, we should also recognize the possibility that due to the need of timely communications Members of Parliament and Government leaders may have a strong incentive to encourage more correspondence by e-mail, instead of letters. This can’t be done without better procedures and resources in place.

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955