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Dec 16, 2009

Bernard Keane's guide to writing to Ministers

Want to vent your fury about net censorship? Bernard Keane offers some tips for making your correspondence to your local MP as painful as possible, drawn from his sordid, blood-soaked and adventure-filled time as a public servant.


If your first instinct upon hearing about the Rudd-Conroy plan to censor the internet is to email Stephen Conroy, your local member and Labor senators from your state to protest, wait up.

Or, in fact, do it anyway, then read this.

Let me explain some facts about writing to ministers, drawn from my sordid, blood-soaked and adventure-filled time as a public servant.

For a start, understand that few ministers if any read their correspondence. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that it’s not humanly possible to read even a fraction of the amount of emails, faxes and letters they get. So the chances of you directly influencing a Minister with your particularly brilliant insight into the issue are zip. Deal with it. Things don’t work like that.

Their staff will read correspondence, but only when considering a reply prepared by their Department.

And that is only a small proportion of the actual volume of correspondence received.  Some is answered directly by bureaucrats. But much of it is simply binned. Don’t waste your time sending off a letter pre-prepared by some enthusiastic online advocacy group, where you sign at the bottom, endorsing the nicely-phrased sentiments at the top. They’re called “campaign” ministerials and are binned without being read or replied to (but please don’t tell the Friends of the ABC, who rely heavily on that technique, and haven’t had a letter to Canberra read for two decades).

Most non-campaign letters and emails – some departments still won’t reply to emails but demand your snail mail address, perhaps out of residual loyalty to Australia Post – are answered using what’s called “standard words” – a reply that ostensibly covers the issue raised but which normally says as little as possible. They say as little as possible because the mindset of bureaucrats and ministerial advisers is to keep as many options open as possible, except when there is a particular message that the Government wants to hammer.

Standard words are worked up by bureaucrats and edited and signed off by the Minister’s staff when they’re happy the words are risk-free or convey the desired message. In most departments, they are then loaded into electronic ministerial correspondence systems. This means a bureaucrat doesn’t even need to cut-and-paste into a Word document, merely tell the system to use a particular set of standard words under the name, address, salutation and opening paragraph, which have all been electronically entered already.

So if you send off an angry email or letter about net filtering, all you’ll likely get is an automatically-generated reply giving you the standard words on the issue. There’ll be minimal human involvement in the writing of it until it is stuffed into an envelope and dispatched.

You may not think it’s very democratic or consultative, but it’s a damn sight more efficient than processing correspondence by hand.

But if you can’t have any impact on policy, you can have an impact on the level of resources used to answer your letter. And that resource is the time of bureaucrats – the same bureaucrats who advise Conroy on policy, and implement his decisions. In most Departments, ministerial replies have to be approved by SES Band 1 officers before being sent to the Minister’s office, which means many replies consume the precious time both of senior bureaucrats and ministerial advisers. Many Departments also have formal agreements with Ministers that a certain proportion of correspondence will be answered within a certain period of time. If they’re not, more people have to be put into answering correspondence.

So if you want to consume as much of the Department of Broadband’s time as possible, here’s what to do. There’s not much you can do to avoid receiving a standard reply. But you don’t have to confine your missive to net filtering. Throw in some other topics. That means someone will have to put together a reply using standard words from different areas, which is a lot more complicated and can’t be done automatically. Ask about the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN). That means someone in the NBN area has to provide some words.  Ask about Telstra. That’s another area entirely that has to provide input. If there’s three or four topics in your letter, bureaucrats will start arguing to avoid having to be responsible for it. The NBN area will tell the net filtering area it’s their responsibility to collate the response. The net filtering area will try to off-load it to the Telstra area. A Band 1 in one area will make changes and the whole lot will have to be re-approved by a Band 1 in another area.

Throw in something on Australia Post. Ask about something obscure. They may not have standard words at all and someone will have to actually prepare a proper reply.

You see, once your letter stops being a standard rant about filtering and requires actual work, the amount of time taken to prepare a response can snowball dramatically.

You can also use the Government’s system for allocating correspondence. As a start, always write to your MP first, even if it’s a Coalition MP. They will send the letter to Conroy and ask for a response to provide to you. MPs – even Opposition MPs – must get a response no matter what, as part of the civilities of politics, and it normally has to come from the Minister himself. But write to other Ministers as well. Ask Kim Carr what the impact of filtering will be on Australia’s IT industry. Ask Jenny Macklin what impact she thinks it will have on families. Ask Robert McClelland what the penalties will be for breaches of the mandatory filtering requirements. And ask Kevin Rudd how a Government that understands the need to bring Australia’s online infrastructure into the 21st century wants to drag it back to the 19th when it comes to content regulation.

All of those letters will have to go from the recipient’s department to Conroy’s Department for a response, then back to the originating Department, where they might add some additional material of their own. If you come up with a particularly complicated issue, the bureaucrats might start disagreeing with each other. Innovation bureaucrats might think Broadband’s net filter standard words doesn’t quite answer your question and want something else.

And don’t ask the same questions in different letters, otherwise they’ll bin them and tell you they understand you’ve separately written to your MP/another Minister/Kevin Rudd and here’s your job lot reply. Ask different questions and raise different issues.

And be pleasant. Apart from anything else, if there’s too much abuse in a letter, it gets thrown out (quite rightly). But these are decent, hard-working bureaucrats and regardless of what you think of Stephen Conroy, they deserve civility and respect.

Most of all, get your friends, acquaintances, family members, work colleagues, passing strangers, all writing. The bureaucratic capacity to handle ministerial correspondence is a lot like the net filters trialled earlier this year. At low levels of traffic they work OK, but once the traffic picks up, things start to choke up. That’s when Stephen Conroy and his office might start to notice that things are slowing down.


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47 thoughts on “Bernard Keane’s guide to writing to Ministers

  1. Michael

    Sounds like a snail mail DDoS attack!

  2. David Sanderson

    There is a devil in that boy.

    I think Bernard has just created an enormous new demand for advanced letter writing software. If you’re a software writer you will be able to charge an exorbitant price so that the bureaucrats can avoid the buck-passing hell described above.

    I assume that Bernard is not looking to return to the public service any time soon.

  3. deccles

    Bernard, thank you. I was half way through composing my rant to Kevin, Kelvin and Stephen last night but decided, I’ll just get a snarky pro forma reply from their staff. The first Conroy pro forma I got was positively rude. I can’t imagine what he sent to those not from Victoria…

    I shall indeed spend some effort crafting a letter than needs input on NBN Cleanfeed, Telstra plus some local and global issues.

    I am lightheaded with joy, malevovent joy, but joy none the less.

  4. paddy

    Well done Bernard, that’s a beautiful article that will, no doubt, be causing untold angst in just the right offices.

    Hell, even Australia Post will love you. 🙂

  5. Malcolm Street

    You’re a wicked, twisted man Bernard 😉

  6. chinda63

    Speaking as someone who works in the biz, you got it spot on.

    And there will be a few department heads (not to mention Ministers) who will want your guts for garters for telling the plebs about it.

    Stuff ’em. It’s what we pay very good money for and it’s time they started listening to the masses instead of the minority Bible-bashing lobby.

  7. acannon

    So if no MPs ever actually read their correspondence, how is it that they all claim to have their finger on the pulse of their electorate’s views?

    Another deeply disheartening fact about our political system.

    It seems a shame that a time-wasting strategy is the only way we have to try an influence our politicians.

  8. Rachel Davies

    Ah the good old days when we weren’t allowed to bin any letters received by the Minister…. I still treasure the memory of a (justifiable) rant to one of Bob Hawke’s ministers. Minister actually did read the letter and was so incensed that he hand wrote a very rude paragraph in reply at the bottom of the letter, then marked the whole thing ‘for Departmental response, including the above’. We were a bit perplexed. The language the Minister had used was not at all what we were used to. The end product was a courteous introduction and conclusion, addressing the letter writer’s concerns, book ending the Minister’s words, which were properly attributed. A fun day at the office.

  9. Alison White

    Fantastic tips.

    While I am crikey subscriber, I’m sending this link to friends to distribute this message widely…so thanks for not putting this story behind the paywall 🙂

  10. VJzoo

    Ministerials are excellent for clogging up the works. I used to be a CES Jobcentre Manager, with the unfortunate coincidence that our office was next door to the local member’s office. If I cut someone’s dole off because they’d repeatedly refused to go for a job, they’d march in next door and I’d be faced with a Ministerial within a few days. Which would take up hours of my time (and obviously a lot of other peoples in between). They wouldn’t get their dole reinstated, but they’d got some revenge by making my day a whole lot worse.

    I think Conroy’s office deserves a bit of that treatment 🙂

  11. Bullmore's Ghost

    Methinks Bernard may have been named after Jim Hacker’s principal private secretary.

  12. surfer

    Wow Bernard, I’m in shock. You actually wrote an article without ridiculing Abbott or Liberals.

  13. Keith is not my real name

    Wow Surfer, I’m in shock. You actually wrote a comment without embarrassing yourself.. no wait

  14. David Sanderson

    Yeah, Bernard, and, yair, everyone knows there is nothing ridiculous about the Liberals. Well only a little bit. Well, OK ALRIGHT, there’s a lot that’s ridiculous. Yair maybe they’re totally ridiculous. Leave off willya.

  15. Paulg

    Actually Bernard, if you write to your local member and they are on the government benches, then the reply will likely be from the electorate office using the same standard words as used in Canberra. But your letter will actually be read and considered. It may well assist the local member’s understanding of the issues and the feeling of the electorate, and may get brought up in caucus, notwithstanding the standard respone issued. Think about writing to members who you know are supportive of human rights issues including freedom from censorship. You will give them good ammunition for the party room.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    What a beautiful and informative piece of prose, Bernard: inspirational actually. I will love following your advice. Olé. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  17. Alex Campbell

    Does writing your letter in opaque, impenetrable prose make it more or less difficult for them to respond?

    I’m considering adopting some Sir Humphrey style but I’m concerned that it make actually help the bereaucritters understand and respond to it with less effort.

  18. apathy1

    This is goin’ straight to the pool room.

  19. Julie McNeill

    Thankyou Bernard – Knowledge is Power and Sharing it is very good Karma!
    Also, if you are a person passionate about causes and consequences, why not become a member of a political party? At branch level you have good, regular contact with your Federal and State MP’s and may influence them………Bernard are you reading this?

  20. JulianL

    A few more topics for additional questions / comments:

    * Access to digital transmitters by community TV broadcasters,
    * Access to digital transmitters by community radio broadcasters, and the current commercial broadcasters’ obstructionist behaviour in demanding excessive access fees,
    * Voucher or other scheme to allow financially disadvantaged to obtain a digital set-top box ahead of the shut-down, and also physical assistance in installing them,
    * Legislation to allow ACMA to issue new types of radio-communication licence to better suit the needs of specific groups radio users, such as recreational boat users and Amateurs, including the option of not charging these users Spectrum Tax.

  21. Veronica

    Bernard, Bernard, Bernard, you have become a grumpy old man!
    You are right about most correspondence never being read by the Minister – and anyone who’s ever been a public servant will tell you that in addition to the reasons you gave, it is also a bloody good thing that that is the case when you see some of the correspondence involved. It would be a gross waste of our elected rep’s time.

    However, I do not agree with you that you should simply give up on having any impact and resort to vexatious time wasting. Most bureaucrats I know genuinely want to do a good job for the community- your suggestion is that they would be better employed answering meaningless rubbish that the author doesn’t even really want an answer to!

    There are other ways of being heard – joining a lobby group for example – that do get the Ministers attention.

  22. kjbar

    Thanks for making my job a lot harder man!

  23. SBH

    @acannon, you should see what happens to petitions

  24. Peter Phelps

    “You see, once your letter stops being a standard rant about filtering and requires actual work, the amount of time taken to prepare a response can snowball dramatically.”

    Nope, no cigar. A decent office will have ‘standard’ paragraphs on w wide range of issues which they’ll just cut and paste into a document, or they’ll agglomerate different ‘standard’ letter letters into a sinlgle letter with trite conjunctions.

    “There are other ways of being heard – joining a lobby group for example – that do get the Ministers attention.”

    Ha! Do lobby groups have any sway over preselections? If so, why is Labor stalling on electoral funding reform (which GetUp! wants). Could it be that the unions (who do have sway in preselections) have applied a bit of pressure to stop their own Parlimantary wing?

    Writing to your local MP is much more effective.

  25. Mac Yourselfathome

    Join a lobby group to get heard Veronica? Lobby groups are what started this mess

  26. questiontime

    Admirable sentiment, Bernard, but it is unfortunately misguided. Lemme break it down for you.

    When a piece of correspondence is sent to an MP’s office for the consideration of a Minister, it is the humble electorate officer in the MP’s office who drafts the representation to the Minister, as well as the response to the sender of the correspondence informing them of the representation being made.

    Subsequently, if one was to send a single piece of correspondence to an MP addressing concerns across a number of different ministerial portfolios, it is once again the electorate officer in the MP’s office that must draft the corresponding number of representations to each relevant minister.

    For instance, if in your letter you raise concerns regarding say, net filtering, the CPRS, live stock trading, and the economic stimulus package, an individual representation must be made to Conroy, Wong, Bourke and Swan from the MP’s office. Each department would then respond to the individual representation, all of which are then filtered back through the MP to the constituent. This is incredibly time consuming for the MP’s office, no doubt, but for the departmental ‘bureaucrats’ you’re trying to stick it to it is no extra trouble at all. They only have to respond to the individual concern that is relevant to them.

    You’re creating a backlog, but in entirely the wrong place. If you want to stop your local member from properly serving their electorate, as well as effectively representing you to whichever Minister is drawing your ire, go ahead and clog their office with inane correspondence. But if you truly value your right to hold your government to account, perhaps you can treat the channels through which you do so with a little more respect.

    After all, wasn’t it Crikey who just days ago were lamenting the populist, gimmicky approach of SMH and the Tele for their campaigns to call an early election in NSW? This sort of schtick is one and the same.

  27. Patrick Bateman

    Write letters to the newspapers too. Indirectly this does have some effect IMHO – enough letters = a decent chunk of coverage on the letters page = expectation on the part of readers that the newspaper will have some coverage of the issue = coverage = the only thing politicians actually care about (PR).

  28. acannon

    SBH – What happens to petitions?! Tell me!! I have had to fix up a few that have found their way into various archives so NATURALLY I assumed they were all kept in perpetuity, reverentially placed in custom-made archival boxes!

  29. Ruby19

    Thank you a lot for the best information just about this good post. Could you aid to determine the thesis service or an experienced dissertation writing to order the outline thesis at?

  30. Kevin Herbert

    Nice story Bernard…reads well & plays to the frustration of many letter writers.

    However, you’ve presented an incomplete view of what influences a Minister’s response to any approach from his constituents, be they individuals or corporations.

    Experienced lobbyists work the Minister’s key staff directly by phone and/or email and observe one golden rule when doing this. i.e. you’ve got to offer a political advantage for the Minister as part of your approach. Make one gratuitous approach & you’ll fall down the ladder of access quick time. As you point out, the sheer volume of work facing Federal Ministers & their staff are overwhelming and they’re not interested in time wasters.

    I thought you’d been a Ministerial staffer.

  31. Andrew Knight


    I’ve already written an email to both the PM and Conroy. I don’t anticipate a decent response (or even any response at all), but I just hope that large numbers of people are also writing letters such that it at least creates additional workload for the bureaucrats. Sadly I am not sure what else I can do on this issue.

  32. Patrick

    I can’t speak for Federal politicians but I can say, after having written responses for a State minister, it is rare that a response is not given, though whether it is one you like is a different issue altogether.

    At a State level you cannot destroy correspondence. I would dare say that if this were to happen it would be a ‘hay making’ day for the opposition were it to be disclosed.

    Further, if you write to the Minister about something not related to their responsibilities, they’ll at best flick your letter to the other Minister. More likely they will ask you to direct your other queries to that minister.

    If you write to your representative then including irrelevant issues will not only delay your response but will only blur the point of your correspondence.

    Be clear, be polite and be on point. Stick to the subject and be clear. State that you expect a reply.

    If you want to delay your response, wait about four weeks and then write with other queries. Each time you do this it will take a while.

    As for having ‘stock response’. It is true that they merely add bits in when they address your general concerns but the notion that all responses receive a stock response is only true to the extent that there exists a commonly asked question about a standing issue. In this case the response is highly likely to be formulaic. It is not accurate to infer that this is the case in all instances in which one writes to an MP.

  33. Julie McNeill

    The volume of letters does matter – look at the recent Lib reason for not supporting ETS and changing leadership that they were bombarded by so many emails and phone calls – (yeah, from the Citizens Electoral Lobby!).
    However, on some issues nothing seems to re-route the policy, look at 80% unpopularity against selling Qld assets and the Govt. persists, and 80% for removing abortion in criminal code and they hold to it like a staffy with your arm in its grip…..Beyond rational explanation,

  34. SBH

    Sorry Acannon, writing job applications like a good public servant, I was. You’re spookily close to the truth. In Australia, petitions are recieved by Parliament and filed. Not read, not responded to. It doesn’t matter how many signatures or who signed, they are utterly ignored. There’s (at least) one in the vaults that is wound around a shaft making a cylinder about three feet thick like some sort of imprecational life savers reel. Completely ignored.

    Out of left field (can’t help myself) Bernard speaking of vaults, do you know if the renos to the big house, particularly the proposed tunnel/bunker, have taken any account of important cultural items and sites built into the foundations or are they just taking the Alice Springs approach where Barrett drive just cuts the tail of the caterpillar?

  35. R-obotman

    Bernard, to what end are you working? What would be achieved other than a diversion of staff away from the substantive work of the department? Policy development/implementation would proceed regardless, but with relatively less attention to detail.

    While your motivation to write this piece stems from opposition to a particular policy, you are actually advocating for the petty frustration of general Government process.

    As a public servant all that I see this blog realising is a lot more bored, nonplussed public servants who would otherwise have been doing something productive.

    Normally I love your work.

  36. Margaret Miller

    My only two experiences of writing to politicians has been once, where my daughter as a young schoolgirl wrote to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser about saving the whales and did not get a reply for 3 years (when she received a stock letter that said nothing much from one of the underlings) and my recent email to Malcolm Turnbull, when he replied himself within a day or so, signing off, ‘Regards, Malcolm”. I know which one I preferred. The latter Malcolm has won me.

  37. Evan Beaver

    These last 2 comments are spam.

  38. Adsy

    Dear Senator Conroy,

    I urge to to reconsider your scandalous censorship legislation. This policy is an absurd and abusive appropriation public money. Filtering is to child porn content pushers what wire taps are to drug pushers. Offenders simply “change up”.

    How could someone of your supposed intellect and life experience honestly believe this mandatory system will achieve any of it’s stated objectives? Would you mind elaborating on that? Prohibition does not work. Take a look at prohibitionist drug laws for example. You know and I know that at anytime any of us are MAXIMUM 2 degrees of separation from a cocaine or ecstasy or marijuana supply deal. Just as drug laws don’t work – a bunch of dudes in gaol networking and contracting HIV, Hep C and hired killers, all the while the drug trade continues to flourish.

    Just as preposterous as alcohol prohibition would be. Alcohol, whilst not as morally reprehensible on a casual basic as sex crimes and unlike sex crimes a pastime to be enjoyed in moderation, is a far worse offender in terms of contributing to violence against women, violence full stop, horrible injury from car accidents and contributing considerable burden on the physical and mental health systems. You wouldn’t dream of censoring booze, would you Senator?

    Child porn is abhorrent. Violence against women is abhorrent. Violence is abhorrent. Any form of abuse from one human being to another, no matter how seemingly innocuous to the perpetrator in their mind, is abhorrent.

    The OFLC won’t even issue R18+ ratings for PC and Console gaming. Did you read that? NO R18+ RATINGS FOR PC GAMES. They are already filtering what the public can access on their PCs. I would never play such games myself, occasional golf is or some retro shooting game is as far as I dabble on my PS2. But I’m not ignorant or naive enough to seriously believe that banning certain violent games or internet content is going to (1) foster change in violent and anti-social behavior or (2) address the root causes and motivations for such behavior or (3) reduce the crime rate in the areas of concern. Censorship and prohibition are flawed and are no match of the, dare I say, evil and cunning instincts of mankind.

    Tragically, people will do what they do. Other people chase down these people and sometimes catch them and incarcerate them for crimes against other people. Other than that, leave people alone and look after your own. This world was never meant to be a source of purity and eternal goodwill. Mankind is capable of the most horrific acts of violence, greed and malice in order to serve their own selfish immediate needs.

    Censorship of the internet via proposed filtering will not change this one iota. It is an ineffective strategy and an arrogant misuse of public money, to put it politely. Take this policy to the election and see where it takes you politically. You certainly didn’t take it to the last election in its present form. I voted Labor at the last election as I wanted change. The world wants change. But leaders like Obama and Rudd are squandering opportunity by sinking their countries further and further into debt whilst implementing idealistic policies being thrust upon constituents in a frenzied fervor after years in the political wilderness.

    Do not take the public for granted for they will burn you at the electoral stake should you even give rise to the even most remote notion that governments may impinge on their access to media based on its own subjective moral compass. Continue to throw money and resources at fighting horrid crimes and bringing criminals to justice but don’t bite your nose to spite your face.

    Sincere regards,
    Adam Bell
    9a Aubrey Rd
    Northbridge NSW 2063

  39. Tsuby

    It may be more effective to mobilise like minded constituents in marginal seats to write a letter of compliant to their local Federal MP and the opposition member in the same seat. If the numbers are significant enough, you may get more bang for your letter writing buck

  40. James McDonald

    Good one Adam

  41. Adsy

    I’d love to have the time to mobilise an army of discontent but I’ll certainly send a copy to the local MP, Joe Hockey…

  42. Venise Alstergren

    ADAM: Beautifully written, should be a blue-print of what people should say. But
    no MP is going to read beyond the first line.

    If in a bad mood they’d fire their PAs for passing it to them to begin with. My guess is it would be filed ASAP into the WPB.

    Please don’t misunderstand me, I wish I had written it. However, I do have one comment and one question.

    Intellect, life experience=Senator Conroy???? (That’s the question)

    People like Conroy and Kevin Rudd rely on the “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” type question-in this case child porn-to ram through a morally reprehensible law such as this. Naturally the short sighted amongst the electorate think there is only one morality-the kid porn. They ignore the equally immoral law that goes with it.

  43. James McDonald

    So write it like this:

    [Dear Senator Conroy,

    First of all, have you stopped beating your wife yet?
    Second, have you figured out yet that the internet is sometimes used for other things than p-rn? Such as, just off the top of my head, democracy and free speech?
    Think about it.

    Yours truly
    John F Citizen]

  44. Adsy

    Yea well, I write like I think, fast and largely ineffective but full of sentiment and commonsense (I share three of four said traits with Senator Joyce). I write stories and scripts, not policy, and I hope I change more people through my medium than any politician ever could. I am just eternally pissed off that politicians get off on thinking they can change human behavior via legislation on the whim of a short-term populist political cycle. For all the arguments against this policy I have read on Crikey, Fairfax, The Punch etc etc there are 10+ hens and roosters clucking quietly basking in a false sense of morality, bless.

    A spade is a spade unless it’s not. And mankind will always fail itself through violence, greed, selfishness and egotism till the bitter end.

    I don’t give a rat’s if Conroy’s Army have not the ticker to take a highlighter, hand my letter to their boss and look him fair in the eye with a cocked brow. What’s more important is that we, the social massive, get out from behind our screens, stop tapping on keyboards and dance on the streets. (I got a swag of responses from Liberal MPs when I group mailed them on all issues Turnbull (who?) and ETS (say what?) but they now lack the ultra priggishness that power propagates).

    For me, it’s not about opt-in, opt-out or mandatory. I’m on the Australian Direct Marketing Association’s “Do Not Call List” but I still get calls from telemarketers. I have enough life experience to know that lists are just that: lists! Able to be manipulated, ignored, mistaken or “incorrectly implemented due to singular data verification impairment” (that’s Ruddspeak for cock up).

    Maybe Conroy should fund private enterprise and let consumers purchase filtration software if they so desire. This probably already exists but I’m unaware to it because I’m smart enough to eyeball my 6 year old’s internet habits and there’ll be no in room PCs or Notebooks until he and his younger brother are old enough to know better.

    Above all else, for me, the issue at hand is that the world needs less draconian legislation to deal with such crimes as violence, sex crimes and anti-social behavior and less lenience from the courts with less wriggle room afforded to defense barristers. For the same reasons, in my opinion, that we need less policing of drug use and a total diversion of resources to fighting addiction, mental health and homelessness. Same goes for road laws, less speed cameras and highway patrols and stiffer fines and longer suspensions for wrong doers and habitual offenders. Imagine if all the highway patrol officers were driving community buses to move people who are unfit to drive through their own stupidity. Imagine if all the money paid to bureaucrats and geeks implementing this policy was spent on flying child victims to Disneyland and access to lifetime Medicare for psychologists.

    I dunno, I am ranting now and it’s past midnight. My mouse will turn into a pumpkin any minute and whisked away by a staffer to throw in the oven for tomorrow’s roast at The Lodge.

  45. Sean

    Came to this a bit late, it’s the silly season after all…

    Peter Phelps
    Posted Thursday, 17 December 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
    “You see, once your letter stops being a standard rant about filtering and requires actual work, the amount of time taken to prepare a response can snowball dramatically.”

    Nope, no cigar. A decent office will have ‘standard’ paragraphs on w wide range of issues which they’ll just cut and paste into a document, or they’ll agglomerate different ‘standard’ letter letters into a sinlgle letter with trite conjunctions.

    I’ve used to write ministerials and more recently used this knowledge to wrote to ministers on a range of issues to actually effect change as an individual, citizen, or voter without using a lobbyist or any particular NGO etc as a front.

    I’ve never heard of software that lets you drop in stock paras, although you could write a VBA solution yourself in Word (or commission one from the IT area) with some custom forms and dialog boxes to do this without too much trouble, I guess — there are always a few programmers floating around in govt who occasionally get tasked to do things like this — but such a solution is mainly intended to save time for officers, and doesn’t materially change the way ministerials are written — and such software solutions can often be clunky also.

    Very often, though, public servants have stockpiled a whole pile of recent replies, often in a shared server area for common access, and simply re-use the paras out of there, changing them around a bit as necessary — more on this below.

    Certainly also signature blocks and opens and closes etc are strongly mandated but they tend to be handcrafted with cut and paste from previous replies and according to the latest decreed standard for that Minister — still, the approach can be automated equally well if desired, if clunkily. Remember most public service offices are just using MS-Word like you or me, it’s not an artifiicially intelligent SkyNet.

    Ministerial correspondence is supposed to be answered, and to a fairly strict deadline system, although there can be slippage and some discretion involved, depending on whether it’s one of a barrage of emails à la Conroy’s filter or a single letter with a single problem from a constituent or organisation that needs an answer.

    When a ministerial letter is received from a source, it (mandatorily, I believe) should get an answer — with the exception of obvious letter writing campaigns — in the case of emails, if you supply a postal address in the note, you are more likely to get an answer, and it will be physically printed, signed and mailed to you — the physical address requirement is a bit of a game they like to play which kind of ensures that you are a real person and constituent and not some sort of spammer, I suppose. Occasionally you will also get email replies, depending on the nature of the letter you sent. Ministers who want to look Internet-savvy will often nowadays send an email reply to less essential mail they receive where there’s nothing at stake — which often results in a new barrage of email replies that they then have to ignore — unfortunately as we know email speeds correspondence up enormously, letting you quote and requote replies with value-adding comments in different colours etc which ratbags will take full advantage of.

    Anyhow, if a ministerial is going to be processed and taken seriously, it goes into a processing stream with various deadlines implied, but will often get routed to a junior public servant who works in the specific area, possibly an APS5 or 6 or state equivalent, who does the grunt work of writing a reply, their manager reads the work makes any changes, and forwards it up for sign-off by the Minister who probably wouldn’t read it. However, you are assured of having an ‘expert’ reply from the dept where the Minister really wouldn’t have a clue.

    In the case of Conroy’s filter, a lot of this correspondence effectively stops at a high level without delegation, however, as there is no low-level APS equipped to deal with the sentiments concerning policy in the letters, except possibly to produce a whole pile of stock answers kind of like a factory. I recently wrote somehing like Adsy’s to Conroy, but with different invective, and don’t care if I get an answer or not, to be honest — but I included a mailing address as a trick to potentially trigger a response.

    For this reason, sending multiple letters all at once, all saying the same thing, to your local MP and the Minister and the PM and so on are frowned upon inside the dept as ‘poor form’, as the same branch and area ends up getting 3 or 4 letters all forwarded to them at around the same time from other ministers and with the same content and then they have to either produce 3-4 almost identical answers if they’re staggered or a single response and notify all the other ministers of having done so — it just creates a welter of extra work unnecessarily for a whole bunch of people in the respective loops. When NGOs do this sort of stunt, it is seen as really poor form and a rather naive attempt to be cunning, usually resulting in a direct phone call from the area manager or else a single written reply on behalf of all ministers petitioned.

    If you write a sensible letter on an issue to an MP and get a reply which provides a Director’s phone number for further enquiries, this is your in — if you are really unsatisfied and want to make a point or take further action, you call the Director, and if you don’t get a good response, you call their Branch Manager or Assistant Secretary, or whatever — you just ask the switchboard of the dept once you have an original name, title, ph number and branch — I’ve done this in the past and gotten good results — perseverance pays off. The really funny thing once was where a new Director wasn’t interested in talking to a ‘member of the public’ and could only understand talking to ‘important people in NGOs’ whereupon I made strenuous efforts to have them removed or sacked as not having a clue about the charter of govt or their own role. That director has moved on and the function has been transferred to another dept since. All good fun.

    Another letter I wrote suggested that the ROSO on the MRBS should be shortened for shorter Med courses, and got a response from the AS responsible and they have actually changed the scheme in line with that suggestion since — this was a narrow, specialised policy problem, not a ‘big ideas’, democratic sit-in, email barrage like the GetUp campaign on Conroy.

  46. Henry123

    I personally like your post; you have shared good insights and experiences. Keep it up.

    UK Dissertation

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