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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. kjbar

    Thanks for making my job a lot harder man!

  4. SBH

    @acannon, you should see what happens to petitions

  5. 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.

  6. Mac Yourselfathome

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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).

  9. 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!

  10. 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?

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details