I published a blog post around two weeks ago which concluded with some brief criticisms of 38 Degrees’ mass-email strategy which has been used to lobby MPs on a range of issues such as voting reform. 38 Degrees asked me on Facebook if I had any ideas of how to overcome the problems I mentioned. Here, I outline in more detail the ways in which I think this strategy could be reworked. Many of the existing issues and proposed solutions which I mention here could very well be replicated in other organisations which use email to create mass-petitions to send to representative bodies such as the House of Commons.
I lay out some of the problems to which the current strategy is contributing. I then identify some proposals to solve these issues and also make some suggestions about how these potential solutions could be publicised both to MPs and to the internet-using public. I do not wish to give the impression that I think 38 Degrees is a failing organisation. On the contrary, it is doing a tremendous job. By its own admission though, it is a young organisation and one of the first to utilise internet technology to lobby MPs. These criticisms are meant constructively and my proposed solutions are intended to contribute to the organisation’s continued success by making it more efficient at working with an emerging set of online tools.
Current Issues with 38 Degrees Mass-Email Strategy
1. MPs are receiving a lot of emails from people who are not their own constituents.
- MPs are actually only required to read correspondence from people who live in the constituency they represent.
- Because thousands of people from outside their constituency are contacting them, MPs are receiving more emails than can viably be read or answered.
2. 38 Degrees has been accused by Tom Watson MP of ‘spamming’ his inbox.
- Watson is one of the House of Commons’ most internet-friendly members. If he dismisses these emails as spam, 38 Degrees’ strategy must be causing even more irritation for the rest of the House of Commons.
- It is important that MPs receive emails in the spirit in which they are meant and not interpret them as spam.
3. The current system does not do enough to encourage people to write high-quality, original emails.
- There are only limited suggestions about what to write to the right of the email text box.
- Users are likely to take the easy option of just sending the example email given by 38 Degrees.
4. MPs have resorted to sending out generic replies which often do not apply to the issue raised in the original email.
- Recent examples of this include Labour MPs’ responses to emails which had dealt with electoral reform. The replies were entirely on why they were unable to form a ‘progressive’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats and other parties and nothing to do with electoral reform.
- This might be seen as a symptom of the other problems which I have outlined.
Proposed Changes to 38 Degrees Strategy
1. All future campaigns should make it obligatory for users to enter their postcode to target their message towards their own MP and not all MPs.
- This was certainly not an option for the recent mass emailing of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs. I see now though that 38 Degrees have implemented that change for some causes already however.
- This would cause an immediate decrease in the number of emails which MPs receive. The emails they do receive would be targeted directly at them and would be of a manageable number however.
2. Users should be able to enter up to two postcodes so that people such as students who have two residences can contact both their MPs.
3. To ensure that MPs are aware of the scale of nationwide surges in support for causes and not just in their own constituency, 38 Degrees should send a weekly email (daily at times of high activity) to all MPs. The email would summarise the details and amount of emails sent to all MPs on behalf of 38 Degrees causes.
- This measure would ensure that MPs would still be aware of mass protest without being overwhelmed by the opinions of 38 Degrees users from across the country.
4. 38 Degrees users should be required to write emails in their own words so that MPs read higher-quality, unique messages. This could be achieved by only providing a blank text box to write in.
- It is possible that the quantity of emails sent would go down if this were implemented due to the extra effort required to send an email. Making this change would surely mean however that MPs would be more likely to have a greater understanding of their constituents’ actual views.
5. 38 Degrees should offer highly-detailed guidelines to the side of the email text box which would encourage higher-quality writing. Emails would still engage with all the points but would avoid MPs receiving countless copies of the same email.
- This has the added benefit that MPs could legitimately cite and quote emails in Parliament as evidence of some of their constituents’ opinions because they would be receiving lots of completely unique messages.
6. 38 Degrees should contact all MPs to ensure they are aware of any changes to their system.
- This would ensure MPs do not see the sudden decrease in emails to them as evidence of a decline in interest but of a better-managed, more constructive system of email-based lobbying.
- This could also help engender a more constructive dialogue between online protest groups such as 38 Degrees and MPs.
7. 38 Degrees should try to make the case more strongly in the media that these email campaigns are not spam but evidence of people trying to overcome the barriers between themselves and their representatives. Most of the British public do not have the huge financial resources of big business available to them.
- One of 38 Degrees’ main goals should not only be to ensure that the public can utilise internet technology to contact their MP but also to achieve a participatory democracy where MPs take the emails they receive seriously.