Why better letters matter for democracy - interested in your thoughts
I was recently asked to write a contribution to the Better Letters website about the importance of correspondence and how governments could improve the interaction between voters and their elected representatives.
This follows on from a previous blog I wrote about email campaigns and how to lobby MP's and not be ignored.
If you have any thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of correspondence with your elected representatives - let me know.
Better Letters Matter for Our Democracy
When someone writes to an elected representative a fundamental, but often overlooked cog of our democracy turns.
The act of picking up a pen or tapping out an email is essential to keeping elected representatives accountable.
Correspondence is an opportunity for a conversation between those who govern and the governed. It provides an opportunity to improve community input, dialogue and engagement within our democracies.
Too often these opportunities are wasted.
When a member of the community takes the time to raise an issue, make a complaint, seek assistance or provide an MP or Minister with their point of view, often the reply
- is received many months after the issue has been raised;
- lacks any empathy or understanding of the person who has written;
- is full of jargon;
- is a signed pdf letter in response to a two line email; or
- does not address the core issue raised
Sometimes there is no reply at all.
In the previous NSW Labor government, I was a Parliamentary Secretary. A significant part of the role of a Parliamentary Secretary is to reply on behalf of the Minister (and the Government) to the many thousands of pieces of correspondence ministers receive every year.
For governments, ministerial correspondence units are the engine room of this work. It is a tough job that involves complex questions, requires accuracy and deals with high volumes of work subject to tight deadlines. These factors mean that the reply drafted does not always contain polished prose or an empathetic response.
At the same time, ministerial offices are busy places that often put correspondence lower on the list of priorities. In reality, the desire to get through the volume of ministerial correspondence can swamp the need to provide leadership and guidance to those doing the drafting.
As the hand that signed several hundred letters a week I was often frustrated by the tone, timeliness and bureaucratic nature of the letters drafted for my signature. I sent some back but I reluctantly signed the majority that came before me.
If I was to be in that position again, these are three principles I would consider before signing off:
- Does this reply demonstrate that the person who has written is the most important person in this conversation? Does the response address the issues they have raised directly and in plain English?
People write to their elected representatives for a range of reasons; because they are angry, need help, are seeking information, are making a suggestion or they are part of a campaign. The tone and form of the reply should reflect an understanding of why a person has written in the first place.
- Does this reply match the medium?
A name attached to a form letter or postcard, an email because of poor service, a letter outlining a complex problem or a tweet from a commuter about a service delay, each represent a member of the public seeking to interact with government. But each does not require a formal written letter signed by the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary.
Would a better response be an email or a phone call? If the contact is via social media the response should be too.
There will always be a role for letters but they should not be the default position for every interaction.
- How can we speed up replies?
Timeliness in response builds trust and shows respect. When replies take months this tells the writer that their issue is not important and nor are they.
It is not unusual for a letter or an email from a member of the public to pass through up to ten hands in a paper based system with multiple sign offs. This is inefficient and a waste of public money that cannot be justified.
We live in a hyper-connected world where information is shared in seconds. Just adding more resources might put a dent in the timeframes but won't fix the communication gap.
Antiquated correspondence systems that do not reflect communication in the 21st century exacerbate the disconnection between voters and their governments. These too must be updated.
Better letters are possible and I would argue essential to helping bridge the gap between voters and their elected representatives. However, true dialogue will only become a reality when Ministers have higher expectations, when governments provide leadership and when there is genuine commitment to a more informed and responsive democracy.