When I was on my self-imposed blogging hiatus in August there was one story that I read about and planned to write about on my return to London. But, course, by the time I got back there were more pressing concerns and it soon slipped my mind. Yesterday I read something that reminded me of this issue and simultaneously invalidated most of what I would have written at that time.
The story was the spat between MP Dominic Raab and the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees. To remind you of the basics, 38 Degrees have a system that allows constituents to send email to MPs on specific campaign issues and Raab objected to the number of identical email messages that he was receiving. He asked 38 Degrees to remove his contact details from their system. You can read blog posts from both Raab and 38 Degrees putting their sides of the story. An LBC radio programme set up a discussion between Raab and 38 Degrees’ Executive Director, David Babb. In this discussion, Raab claimed that every email he got from the 38 Degrees system was identical. Babb claimed that 80% of them had been customised in some way.
The system that 38 Degrees have set up asks you for your postcode which it then uses to work out who your MP is. It then presents you with the text of an email that it wants you to send to your MP. Text beside the email message encourages you to edit the message to make it more personal, but it’s possible to send it without any personalisation. The disagreement between Raab and Babb on LBC was to do with the number of people who edit these messages before sending them.
Clearly an MP getting 50 identical emails from constituents isn’t going to give them the same attention as 50 different messages on the same topic. If you’re not going to alter the text in any way then you might as well just sign a petition. If you don’t care enough to write a personalised message, then why should the MP care what you say.
And that’s about where the story was when I came back from holiday and put it to the back of my mind. Then yesterday I read this blog post by Sam Smith. Sam makes a number of good points, but the one I want to concentrate on is the one about the level of customisation in the email messages. Sam points out that if you send the email without editing it at all, then it will be addressed to “Dear [Insert MP name]”. It seems clear that editing the message to correct this failure of basic courtesy falls within 38 Degrees’ definition of “customisation”. This therefore means that 20% of the email they were sending to Raab didn’t even address him individually. No wonder he got annoyed.
This is a fundamental flaw in the 38 Degrees system. They know the name of the MP, There’s no reason why they can’t put the correct name into the email. Not doing so can only be attributed to either laziness or incompetence on the part of the people who wrote the system. It’s astonishing that an organisation that wants to be taken seriously can think that this is acceptable. This is something that should be fixed immediately. The email system should be taken off-line until this is fixed.
This, of course, explains the disagreement between Raab and Babb about the level of customisation in the messages. Babb is counting the people who corrected the name and Raab is only talking about the content of the email. It’s tempting to believe that Babb was being deliberately over-literal in his answer to the question in order to back up a rather dubious point. It would be interesting for 38 Degrees to tell us what proportion of people actually customised the content of the message. I suspect that the number is far lower than 80%.
The problem is that if you give people an easy option, then many of them will take it. And, as I said above, MPs are completely justified in attributing less importance to identical email. Sometime you hear people comparing messages that they get back from MPs and complaining that different MPs have sent back almost identical messages to the same mass email. Well, I don’t think that you can expect an MP to spend any more effort on a reply than you put into your email. If you’re using an unaltered email from 38 Degrees then you can’t possibly complain if the reply is written by someone in Central Office.
This is all a terrible shame. Email gives us an unprecedented level of access to our elected representatives. It would be a disaster if 38 Degrees ham-fisted attempts to make use of this system spoil it for the rest of us and stop MPs from replying to email at all.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Email can be an effective campaigning tool when used carefully. The Lighter Later campaign takes a different and, to my mind, more useful approach. The 38 Degrees approach seems to be based on the idea that people are too stupid or too lazy to write their own email. Lighter Later trust people and give them an almost empty text box in which to compose an email. They give some useful information to help you to write the message, but all of the text is your own. It would be great if 38 Degrees and other campaigning organisations could take the same approach. Sure, you’re likely to see fewer messages sent, but the ones that are sent will have greater effect.
I would strongly recommend that you don’t use the 38 Degrees system until it greatly improves. But if you feel that you really want to support one of their campaigns then please a) ensure that you fill in the MP’s name correctly and b) delete all of their pre-written text and start again from scratch. Your MP will take far more notice of your message.
 Which is very likely – they campaign on very important issues.
Update: Denny points out that I should mention TheyWorkForYou who allow you to contact your MP on any subject – giving you a blank slate to work from. I believe that all three sites (38 Degrees, Lighter Later and They Work for You) use Write To Them to actually send the message. The difference is only in the amount of pre-processing that the site uses.