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.
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.