On Tuesday James Wattam told us about the great advocacy training he received from Engineers Without Borders, and how much it helped him navigate the political system.
As James said, it shouldn’t take special training to engage in democracy. Still it’s clear that, for now at least, it does.
So we reached out to the insider experts on political engagement -- political staff. Since staff are often MPs’ “gatekeepers,” responding to your emails, booking meetings, and answering your calls we asked for their advice on getting the ears of MPs.
Here are some of their tips:
1. Build a relationship: When groups regularly interact in a thoughtful, professional way they can get to know the MPs’ staff and gain more access to the MP. Alternatively, when groups come in unprepared, or are late for meetings, it wastes MPs’ time and staff are unlikely to agree to meet with that group again.
2. A letter is a good first step: Staff keep a tally of the letters their MP receives on each topic and what side of the debate constituents are on (really! They do!). So long as the opinions don’t directly contradict a party platform, these letters really do sway how the MP votes. Also, try to write your own letters – staffers hate form letters as much as you do.
3. Dot your “i’s”: MPs’ staff receive an overwhelming number of poorly thought out, and sometimes offensive letters. If you want to express your opinion on a particular policy “a well-crafted letter is like a diamond in the rough.” So put some time into it, and you’re more likely to get a thoughtful response.
4. Have a concrete request: You are more likely to feel satisfied if you can actually measure your MP’s response. Know what you want and ask for it, then ask for a follow-up meeting to see if it’s been done.
5. Your MP is your representative: Unless an MP is a cabinet minister or an opposition critic he or she will likely show little regard for letters that come from outside the riding. Write to your own MP for best results.
6. Have realistic expectations: If you are asking for something that directly contradicts a party platform, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead. Your MP was elected because of their stance on certain topics, so if you want them to change that, you’ll need to make a very convincing case.
7. A form letter doesn’t mean you are being ignored: Form responses can be incredibly frustrating, but multiple staffers told us that it would be impossible, and a poor use of time, to craft unique responses for each letter that comes in on a popular issue.
"I feel bad that form letters are discouraging and seen as a disincentive for future engagement. I guess I would want constituents to know that a form response doesn’t mean that the letter won’t be brought to the MP’s attention, as they always were in my office. I would hope they could see that from our side, form letters aren’t sent because we don’t care about their feelings on the issue, but because we are but one person trying to respond to hundreds of the same letters a day, and trying to make sure that every one of those people feel heard. It’s not easy."
8. But they can still feel insufficient…:
So, if you’re not satisfied, feel free to send a follow-up to show you’re serious, and ask to set up a meeting.
9. Make face time: It is very hard for staff to say no to someone who wants to sit with their MP for half an hour. It may take a few weeks before they can fit you into their schedule but once the time comes, if you are well-prepared and present your points clearly, your words will resonate.
10. Be ready for the long haul: As Samara has learned, many MPs themselves don’t know how to influence the House of Commons, so stay persistent and remember that you are working through a complex system.
Want more on engaging with MPs? Here are some of our favourite resources:
How to Meet with an MP from Engineers Without Borders
Developing Powerful Talking Points from RESULTS Canada via Engineers Without Borders
"Advocacy How-To's" from RESULTS Canada