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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. James McDonald

    Good one Adam

  2. 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…

  3. 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.

  4. 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]

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Henry123

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