38degrees – a new campaign movement?

Does today mark the birth of a new campaign movement in the UK? Their has long been talk of a British equivilant to MoveOn in the US or GetUp in Australia.  This afternoon I received my first e-mail from 38degrees, which is trying to follow the same path and mobilise people to act together to take actions on the issues that matter. Having assembled a team of advisors and staff from some of the most effective progressive campaign groups in the UK, you feel that this might be the one that succeeds.

The first action that 38degrees have asked people to take is to allow people to recall MPs, its a smart choice, big enough to feel that is an appropriate response to the situation, but achievable enough to actually possibly happen (as opposed to asking for electoral reform), its a timely issue and one which will resonate with people beyond those who traditionally take action. Its also something that already has seen some support from newspapers and politicians. It’s not clear from the action what they’ll do with the petition, but I’m sure they’ll report back in the coming weeks.

It remains to be seen if 38degrees will have the same impact that MoveOn and GetUp did. I hope it does, but the UK is a crowded campaigning marketplace with lots of organisations offering similar products and campaign methods, so they could struggle to differentiate from others.

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MPs and digital media

Using supporters to engage and influence MPs remains the core work of many campaigning organisations, and many organisations have chosen to make this easy for supporters by investing in software such as Advocacy Online, but what do we know about how MPs use technology and respond to eCampaigning. Two reports might help.

How MPs use digital media.
The Hansard Society has recently released ‘MPs Online – Connecting with Constituents‘ which explores how MPs use digital media to communicate with constituents.  The finding are useful for campaigners, as it gives an insight into what MPs are themselves doing, and provides ideas about how organisations can increase their digital engagement with MPs.

The report finds that almost all MPs are using email, most have personal or party run websites but the numbers using other forms of electronic communications is smaller. Social networking, blogs, twitter and texting is used by less that 20% of MPs.  The overall picture seems to be that MPs, much like many campaigning organisations, have started to adopt digital media as a way of communicating out to constituents, but less have been able to make a leap into using using web 2.0 tools which might help to ensure a more meaningful conversations with constituents.

Their are some interesting differences dependent on party membership (Lib Dems are the positive about digital media, Conservative the least) and age (younger MPs are more likely to use it, so as older MPs stand down we’re likely to see a bigger take up of digital media ), but little difference dependent on marginality of seat.  The report suggests that their is potential for greater engagment and closer ties in the future.

MPs also make useful observations saying that email has been great for them to communicate with constituents but the immediancy of the tool means that people often assume that they’ll be able to engage in a ongoing discussion that MPs simply don’t have time for, indicating that their office staff often struggle to cope with the volume of emails recieved (an increase which hasn’t been accompanied by a fall in the number of letters) , and the challenge of  identifying if the correspondent is from their constituency.

Attitudes towards eCampaigning
In 2006, Duane Raymond at Fairsay was comissioned to carry out some reasearch about MPs attitudes to eCampaigning, the whole report can be read here.

Although its a few years old, the findings from the Hansard Society would indicate that many of the key learning probablly still remain true. The main findings of the report is that every MPs is very different in how they respond to and engage with eCampaigning, but that most organisations still offer their campaigners a one-size fits all approach to commnications.

This means they’re not  having the biggest impact they could and the findings encourage organisations to be much more savy at how they segment their communications to MPs, for example by segmenting the message that they ask supporters to send.  Many MPs report that quality is as important than quantity when it comes to messages.

Another finding that stands out is the need to show that MPs that the person contacting them is actually from their consituency. The internet may have in many ways removed geographical barriers, but they are still of considerable importance to MPs.

Some conculsions
For me both reports indicate that it makes sense to have an online campaigning presence, but also reinforces that this shouldn’t simply replace more traditional low tech campaigingng method but should work in tandem.

Organisations should remember that n individually composed letter (or email) is better than an automated one – many organisatiosn know this, but perhaps more needs to be done to encourage people to spend the extra 5 minutes to write it.

Individual constituency level activists will always have a value, the MPs indicate that those people who have the time to write a hand written or visit an MP are ‘worth their weight in gold’. Organisations should do all they can to encourage, support and inspire these people.

Actions of the fortnight

Actions that have arrived in my inbox over the last two weeks.

Action Aid – Stand alongside campaigners in India calling for mining in the Niyamgiri Hills to be halted. In the UK, you can support the campaign by sending an email via the Indian High Commissioner in London

CAFOD – Calling on mining companies to listen to communities in the Philippines.

Practical Action – Urge Gordon Brown to strengthen EU climate proposals.

RSPB – Urge the government to switch to green energy

WDM – Stop the EU’s Great Train Robbery

How many actions do DFID get each year?

Using the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve found out the following about the number of campaign actions that DFID get each year.

Total number of actions and delivery method
Year    Postcards             E-mails               Letters          Petition signatures    Total
2007    34,215 (38%)    31,514 (35%)    4503 (5%)    19,808 (22%)              90,040
2008    42,796(40%)    41, 683(38%)    4049(4%)    19,612 (18%)                 108,140

Breakdown by Topic (2008)
HIV and AIDS
45,583 (42%)
Debt 22,675 (21%)
Trade 20,811 (19%)
Water 8137 (8%)
Health issues (excluding HIV and AIDS).
2962 (3%)
Rainforests
2152 (2%)
Fulfil G8 promises 993 (1%)
Burma 988 (1%)
Various other development issues, where we received less than 750 items
3839 (3% )

Breakdown by Organisation (2008)
Stop AIDS Campaign
33, 229 (31%)
Jubilee Debt Campaign 20,371 (19%)
Trade Justice Movement 13,809 (13%)
Tearfund 12,171 (11%)
Traidcraft 5321 (5%)
World Development Movement (WDM) 5451 (5%)
Oxfam
2,001 (2%)
ActionAid 2138 (2%)
UNICEF 2678 (2%)
MICAH Challenge 1039 (1%)
World Vision 1097 (1%)
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (Burma)
862 (1%)
Various other  organisations, where we received less than 750 items
7973 (7%)

Undoubtedly their is some double counting in the lists, but it still makes for interesting reading, and shows the relative mobilising strength of a number of the main campaigning organisations in the UK. Christian Aid are perhaps a surprise exception from the list, but looking at their website they focused almost exclusively on Climate Change in 2008.

It shows the fact that some coalitions are better at getting their members to run their actions. For example the 45,000 actions on HIV and AIDS of which about 25% didn’t come from Stop AIDS coalition, against the 22,000 on debt most of which came from the Jubilee Debt Campaign (although its shows the influence the campaign still has that they can mobilise that many supporters to take action).

Finally it raises the question how much did the different organisations make of the opportunities to use their postcards to influence policy. It’s all very well to have lots of postcards but they don’t do much to influence policy if they just end up in the DFID postroom. Looking at the list, I think Stop AIDS Campaign are one of the best examples of how to use their actions to maximum effect, holding a high-profile hand in the autumn with Ivan Lewis MP to hand over 14,000 actions on patent pools, and running a significant campaign earlier in the year around DFIDs new three year strategy on the issue.  Its a good lesson to remember that without an effective strategy to use the actions you’ve generated

I’ve made a number of other requests and I hope to be able to share them with readers of this blog in the coming months, along with further analysis.