38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email

10 Aug

I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving  1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.

Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.

38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users

There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.

The principle of making it easier for the electorate to lobby their MP via email is an excellent one. As I wrote in May,

At the moment, email is simply the most efficient method for members of the the general public who feel strongly about an issue to register their opinion with those who legislate. It is a method by which people without great wealth or privilege can lobby their representatives in Parliament. Big business can spend millions on lobbying legislators and the civil service to make law conforming with their interests. Such monetary resources are just not available to normal people.

A reformed 38 Degrees has the potential to open up email as a hugely productive and highly accessible channel of communication between the electorate and its representatives. Emailing your MP is not synonymous with spamming your MP but if MPs feel they are only going to be bombarded with thousands of uniform emails, they are surely unlikely to be receptive to this new dimension of participatory democracy. 38 Degrees badly needs to alter its campaign strategy for the good of its causes and also to ensure that MPs are amenable to the virtues of email-based lobbying in general.

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3 Responses to “38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email”

  1. Simon 10/08/2010 at 09:32 #

    Spam is the bulk scatter sending of unsolicited email to all and sundary. Via 38 degrees, constituents are afforded the opportunity to email their MP directly about any issue that concerns them. Not everyone is an expert in these issues, not everyone is confident to speak with authority, not everyone has the time to write letters, and not everyone has the time to attend surgeries.

    You seem to think that simply because people are putting their name to someone elses words that this makes their point less valid. Why is this so ? We all get that individually written letters are more likely to get noticed, however why is it that if I read a template, completely agree with it, put my name to it and send it that this makes this letter less valid. It is STILL my opinion, I am STILL a consitient and I am STILL drawing attention to my MP about this issue.

    If 38 degrees were bulk emailing all MPs with their own agenda then you would be getting close to spam, however they provide the facility for constituents to directly contact their own MPs about specific issues that concern them. I really fail to see why anyone is trying to belittle this approach that is getting people to engage with their MPs more than they every have.

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  2. Oliver 10/08/2010 at 12:35 #

    These MPs clearly need to be shown how to use ‘Rules’ in their email clients for handling this kind of mail.

    I care about a lot of issues 38 Degrees covers and I don’t have the time to write personalised emails. I’ll take the 38 Degrees standard email and adapt it.

    The solution is a technical one for MPs to sort out, it’s not 38 Degrees problem.

    In the US for example MoveOn has been running for years and has a considerable amount of influence now it works in a similar manner as 38 Degrees. I’m sure that if congresspeople and senators can handle the email then our MPs can handle that generated by 38 Degrees if they want to.

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  3. EyeSeeSound 10/08/2010 at 18:20 #

    How about, instead of 1300 identical emails which does actually reduce the emotional impact of the issue, the 1300 people get to add their name to the email and one email is sent with 1300 signatories.

    It is then impossible for an MP to refuse to address it through snow blindness. In fact, even though email will have been written by a campaigner, 1300 have added their email address because they believed in the campaigners words.

    It would be nice of those people could be CCd in and so one reply would then go to everyone, but even if that isn’t possible, the campaigner will get a reply which can then be forwarded to the relevant signatories, even if it is because by signing it they are automatically emailed to a response on the page, which can only be responded to by the campaigners to stop signatories being spammed by a plethora of public comments on the protest letter writing page.

    1300 identical mails is devaluing the issue and as much as I tend not to side with the Government, sure I get what they are saying. I don’t believe change will be instigated by pissing people off. Surely a show of support via a single mail is more potent.

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