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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 comments

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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 🙂

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