Most of us have the chance to elect our governments, but that doesn't mean that we always approve of what they do in our name. Sending the government a letter is a time-honoured way of involving oneself in the affairs of the region or country in which we live, and reminding them how they got into power in the first place. It works as well - as with voting, your letter can make a difference.
There are numerous types of letters you might write to a government or governmental organisation. These can vary from a letter to the UN about world peace to a letter to the council to complain about Mrs Jones at number 34 training her poodle to empty its bowels on your lawn. This entry concentrates on writing a political letter to the UK Government, but much of it will also be applicable to writing a political letter to other governments or governmental organisations.
More specialised advice on writing a letter about a political prisoner can be found in the Amnesty International letter writing guide. And there are more good tips on the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants Letter Writing Tips page.
Your Ideas May Be Radical but Keep Your Approach Organised
You may be writing about the government's lamentable policy on recycling, but you should still use a fresh sheet of paper. Think that the Department of Education1 is breaking the will of our children by preventing them from doing their essays in fluent textese? You should still put your letter through a spell checker.
Civil servants set great store by things such as correct spelling and reasonable grammar. This may not be fair or right, but they are quite likely to judge the importance of your letter by factors such as:
- If it is handwritten, whether it is legible.
- Whether it is written in a standard-coloured ink.
- Whether the letter is clear and concise.
- Whether you are polite and use appropriate vocabulary.
Generally speaking, it's best if your letter is typed rather than handwritten. It's also better to send a snail mail letter or a fax rather than an email, or at least to provide a postal address for the reply. For the moment, UK Ministers or European Commissioners don't generally send official emails, even if many of them have a public email address. You should get some sort of reply if you send an email, but probably not signed by the big boss. This situation is evolving rapidly, however. In the US, sending an email poses a different problem. Legislators and the Executive get so much email that they can't answer it all and have set up automatic reply services or filtering to keep it manageable.
Keep a copy of your letter and any replies you get. If you don't get an adequate reply, it may be possible to complain to your MP, to an Ombudsman or some other authority.
Writing to the Right Organisation/Person
In today's complicated political structures, this is not always easy. For example, you have heard that someone would like to build a ski-lift on your favourite mountain in the Highlands of Scotland. Do you write to:
- The Scottish Executive?
- The European Commission?
- The Local Authority?
- The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency?
- The UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
- The Scotland Office?
Tricky... but in this case the answer is one or more of the first three, but probably none of the last three - responsibility for the environment is devolved to the Scottish Executive, and the SEPA deals mainly with enforcement.
Government departments are supposed to be able to deal with this and redistribute your letter appropriately. However, if you can ascertain which organisation should be getting your missive in advance, perhaps through the Internet or a couple of telephone calls, this could mean you get an answer quicker than if your letter is passed around one or more government departments.
Try to resist the temptation to copy your letter to all and sundry that might have an interest. Copying letters to the Prime Minister and the Queen will not impress the person who writes the reply to your letter. If you send it to more than one minister, this can cause significant delays while civil servants from the various departments frantically run around and try to co-ordinate a response that everyone can sign up to.
Do, though, think about the aim of your letter when you decide who to write to. If you are outraged that a directive drafted by the European Commission will restrict the right of your business to pollute the local river, you may find that the Department of Trade and Industry are more sympathetic than the Environment Ministry...
People and Organisations Who Can Help you Get your Point Across
You are not alone. There is a variety of people who can help you to get the most impact.
An obvious port of call is your constituency MP or MEP. They will be delighted you have heard of them, and will often forward your letter on to the appropriate authority, asking to be kept informed. This virtually guarantees that the responsible minister will read the letter and sign and read the reply. You can write to them at their constituency address or via the House of Commons.
Another option is to ask your union, business federation or an NGO (non-governmental organization) to help. Perhaps they'll take up your cause. Perhaps others are in the same situation as you. Letters from Oxfam, the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) or the NUT (National Union of Teachers) always get a reply from the minister.
Alone, your letter can be ripped up by even the puniest civil servant - but 200 letters - even Schwarzenegger would struggle. If it's a local issue, you could organise a letter-writing campaign in your neighbourhood?
Is a Minister Is Going to Reply to a Letter from Little Old Me?
Well, the minister certainly won't write the reply him/herself. However, if you write a clear, non-abusive letter, you will almost certainly get a reply. Indeed, most Departments have a code of conduct that obliges them to reply. However, who reads your letter, who writes the reply and who signs it can vary a good deal.
Say you write to a government minister. His private office or correspondence unit will open the letter and read it. If you or your letter are very important, they will take a copy for him or her to see rapidly. 95% of the time, however, they will send it down the hierarchy to the appropriate unit or division to have a reply drafted. If your letter has come through an MP or if you are important, the letter will be written by a junior civil servant, checked by a middle manager, and then sent back to the minister's office for signature. He or she will almost certainly read it before signing, and may make changes or send it back for more work2. If your letter is technical or not political, it will be signed and sent out by a middle manager.
If you write on a topic that is of concern to a number of people, you may get a standard reply. The unit concerned will have done a form letter, or perhaps some standard paragraphs and will churn them out on demand. Remember that they might be getting thousands of letters which they have to do along with the rest of their work - there is no other way really. The letter should, however, make an effort to address your concerns. If you get a reply saying that they have received your letter, and that you will get a detailed response shortly, this is a good sign. It indicates you may have hit a sore spot, or at least that they are thinking about the reply.
Even if the minister doesn't read or sign your specific letter, they will be getting a regular summary of the correspondence they are receiving. If they get lots of letters on the same subject, it will have an impact on them.
How long should you expect to wait for a reply? Well, many UK Government Departments and also the European Commission have a target of dealing with queries within 15 working days. More than a month and you are entitled to be disgruntled.
Writing a letter and expecting a reply is a democratic right, but like all rights it is not absolute. If you abuse this right, you waste the time of the people whose wages you pay through your taxes. The civil servant or local government official is not there to do your course work or politics project for you, for example. Try their website instead.
One final word of warning. In the spirit of transparency, some public figures have started publishing their correspondence on the Internet.