Useful advice from two new MPs

The latest edition of Third Sector has a good article with advice from two new MPs (Stella Creasy and Stuart Andrew) on the NGO lobbying and campaigning that they’ve found most effective in the last year.

Much of what they suggest isn’t new, but it’s a useful article with tips from two MPs who used to work in the sector.

Here are a few of the comments they made;

1. Identify a local link to your issues – Conservative MP Stuart Andrew cites the example of a cancer charity that ‘wrote to say they were holding a reception at the House of Commons, and a constituent of mine who had suffered from ovarian cancer would be there’.

2. Ask an MP to do something specific – both MPs talk about the importance of not simply providing the MP with information but actually asking them to do something specific about it. Stella Creasy suggesting that ‘many just want to come in and brief me about things, as if I don’t read about them otherwise. That is frustrating’, going onto say that campaigns also need to be prepared to work with her on a soltuion saying ‘it’s disrespectful to think your job is over because you’ve told me about a problem’.

Andrew reflects on his time on the other side says ‘At the hospice, I just wrote to MPs explaining what we did at the charity. We didn’t ask for anything specific. The MPs could have arranged adjournment debates on children’s hospices or tabled specific questions about funding or access to hospices, had we asked them to’.

3. Come together– Stuart Andrew says ‘If I get six different charities campaigning on the same issue, it might be difficult to know where to turn‘ before going onto suggest that getting working in coalition can be more effective.

Campaign Totals – DEFRA

Total number of actions received between May 1st 2010 and May 1st 2011: 201,805

Number of postcards/letters: 92,310
Number of emails: 109,495
Biggest campaign: RSPB – Don’t cut the life from our countryside – 53,147

Breakdown by campaign:

View the spreadsheet in google docs here. Information from Freedom of Information requested received on 10 May 2011, and is presented as received from DEFRA with one amendment (which was to link SustainWeb to the Jim’ll Fix It For Fish? campaign, the original information had this down as None). More about the ‘Campaigns Total’ project here.

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Introducing ‘Campaign Totals 2011’

For the last few years I’ve been using Freedom of Information to find out how many campaign actions different government departments receive each year.

I’ve found that its an excellent way of benchmarking the campaigns that I’ve been involved in against others and getting an indication of the volume of actions and issues different government departments are having to respond to.

This year, I’ve requested the information from all Whitehall departments covering the period 1st May 2010 to 1st May 2011. I’ll be publishing the responses as I get them starting with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

I’ve asked each department to provide the following;

  1. The total number of campaign letters, postcards and emails that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign you received from 1st May 2010 to 1st May 2011
  2. The breakdown of these numbers by delivery method (letter, postcard and email).
  3. A breakdown by topic and/or organisation(s) where you received more than 500 items of correspondence (through any delivery method) that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign in the period defined above.

When I’ve got responses from all 20+ departments I plan to do some analysis which I hope will give a fascinating picture of campaigning to the UK government in the last 12 months. It’ll provide a league table of which campaigns have generated the most actions, what issues have captured the publics support and which are the most targeted departments.

5 lessons from the AV campaign

Paul Waugh has a great article on ‘Who won the AV digital war’. It’s full of interesting learning about what worked and what didn’t.

In short, the Yes campaign (the link is to the Labour YES site as the cross-party site has already been taken down) tried to build from the grassroots, based on the fact that they inherited a list of 150,000 people who were involved in campaigns like Unlock Democracy. It put it’s effort into converting this online support into offline activities, like getting activists to organise street stalls and events (of which 3,000 were organised). I guess by extension it was also hoping that its messages would cascade down from activists to their friends through social networks.

The No2AV campaign didn’t inherit an email list and focused on buying advertising on high-profile websites, reportedly spending the most of any campaign in UK political history on the day of the ballot (the exact figures will be released in the coming weeks when the final spending figures are released) and pushing people to its sites and You Tube page, which worked as the NO campaign registered almost twice as many views of its YouTube channel. According to Waugh a decision was made not to engage on twitter and also placed a greater focus on using text messages as a tool to mobilise supporters to attend events.

Clearly the result of the referendum wasn’t simply about the success or failure of the digital campaigns (you can read more about the politics of the campaign here) but I still think it has some interesting lessons for NGO campaigns especially as Waugh suggests ‘From its hardline attack ads to its press operation and its mass bombardment approach, the No2AV campaign most felt like a mainstream political party. With its activism and social engagement, not surprisingly perhaps, the Yes campaign most looked like an NGO’

1. Digital media needs to be at the heart of any campaign – Both campaigns put digital media at the heart of their approaches by ensuring the appropriate lead staff attended key strategy meetings. Waugh says ‘MessageSpace’s Jag Singh, an early appointment as Director of Digital Comms for No2AV, was ’embedded’ in the highest level of the campaign, attending all of their 8am morning meetings for example’ and suggests that same was true of the Yes campaign.

2. You can raise money from online campaigning with the right ask – The Yes campaign generated £250,000 from small donations (the average was £28) in the course of the campaign. A good example of a timely ask to the right audience can raise money as well as lead to activism.

3. Let’s not forget mobile phones as an organising tool – It’s interesting to note the use of this by the No2AV team to mobilise supporters. A few weeks ago I heard that research has shown that most text messages are read within 15 minutes, the same clearly can’t be said of emails where a 10% open rate is considered ‘good’. Should NGO campaigns be investing more in collecting mobile numbers that can be used to inform activists of key events or actions?

4. You need to reach out beyond the usual suspects – Was one of the reasons that the No2AV approach work so well was that in buying on-line marketing it reached beyond the usual suspects on the day of the election, whereas Yes campaign activists were speaking in an ‘echo chamber’ where they were simply sharing their tweets and messages to friends with similar views who were already inclined to vote Yes. One status update on my Facebook wall perhaps summarises this problem well ‘if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, the Yes vote is in the bag. But then, I don’t think I have a very proportionate representation’

5. Decide what to do with the data afterwards before the event – Waugh highlights a problem common to many in coalitions, both campaigns have built significant e-lists but it isn’t clear what to do with that data now. A good reminder of the need to discuss this before your build your list.

Do you agree? Did the politics of the situation mean the digital strategy wasn’t going to make a difference either way?

Will phoning your MP have an impact?

Last week, I received a request from the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC) to phone my MP asking them to support a 10-minute rule bill debate.

Phoning my MP isn’t a campaign tactic that I’ve seen used often in the UK, although our friends across the Atlantic make regular use of it, often providing a toll-free number to campaigners to encourage them to phone their representatives in Congress.

It’s certainly an interesting and novel tactic, and I can see why JDC choose to use it as a way of trying to circumvent the bombardment of ‘urgent’ e-mail requests that many MPs report receiving, but to be honest I’m not sure that targeting it towards MPs is going to be especially effective. Here’s why;

1 – It’s too easy to dismiss – I sense these calls only work if a campaigning organisation is able to generate a significant number of calls to every MP. Perhaps a targeted strategy to a handful of influential MPs, with especially tailored messages might work, but a blanket approach reduces the numbers and makes it too easy for an MP to dismiss a single caller as representing a minority view rather than a significant concern of constituents.

2 – It’s too easy to be overlooked or forgotten – Most MPs appear to have well-established systems to deal with the postcards and letters that they receive. The very fact that someone needs to physically do something with them (even if that means throwing them in the bin!) means that they get noticed, but the same can’t be said for a call which can easily be forgotten the moment the phone is put down!

3 – It’s a big ask of a campaigner – The barriers to entry are high, for example the UK Parliament doesn’t have a single number you can use to call all MPs. Instead you need to find a number for every MP individually, and then in this case, you’ve got to be a fairly confident campaigner to chat to your MP about a 10-minute rule bill.

I can however, see the value in encouraging campaigners to call an individual target, either within a government or a corporate with a simple message.

Indeed it’s already been put to good use by campaigners, at the end of last year members of the UKYCC managed to overload the Downing Street switchboard when they made calls to demand that Chris Huhne stay at the climate change talks in Cancun.

I think this worked because the campaign was able to demonstrate volume by getting significant numbers of people to call in very short timeframe, plus agility by responding to an issues which by its very nature needed a quick decision. But even then I think it’s a tool that can only be used occasionally if it’s going to have a real impact.

Do you agree? Is this a valuable new tool that campaigners should be using?

Update – A reader points out that a switchboard number for the House of Commons (020 7219 3000) but that its unlikely that they’d take kindly to hundreds of coordinated phone calls.