Volume of political email is a campaign boon, not bane

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Jason at the Restless Capital blog has written about some interviews he’s conducted with the people who moderate politicians’ websites and email accounts. He notes that difficulty comes from “the sheer volume of digital communication — especially email”. This volume problem is a larger one than the content of the communication.

He shows the growth. It certainly is substantial.

Email to Australian MPs - Restless Capital
Email to Australian MPs via Restless Capital

Interesting is that the peak of email communications to MPs peaked around 2009-10 and has since declined back to 2006-07 levels. The scale though is amazing. Of the 150 members of parliament and 76 senators, there are over 40 million emails. Many of these of course are day-to-day communications between staff within parliament.

But a large chunk are probably from constituents, and a large proportion of that is probably generated by online campaign groups like Change.org or Get Up.

The Restless Capital blog makes a remark that when commercial organisations face large increases in email correspondence relating to their core business, they hire more staff.

In fact, what private businesses are more likely to do is invest in IT systems that can let their staff manage that email traffic.

In the title of this blog post, I say that the volume of political email is a boon, not a bane.

I say this on the grounds of campaigning and political communications only.

When a constituent contacts their local member of parliament about a particular issue — especially if it comes from the likes of Get Up — that MP should see it as an opportunity to engage.

The challenge is introducing the IT systems to do so effectively and efficiently.

In the USA, many members of congress and the senate use the databases like NGP VAN to help manage this process. When a senator is targeted over an issue (such as gun control), the emails he or she receives is categorised by the database; the senator’s staff can then use their email communication software (like BSD Tools, or something like MailChimp) to reply to those constituents.

The benefits of responding to email and engaging with constituents is self evident. Firstly, many people will be pleasantly surprised to receive a response; they may even be convinced to understand the point of view of the MP. Constituents engaged on one issue may be receptive to being contacted on related issues.

For example, a large number of people contacted their MPs about live animal exports in 2012. These people could be engaged about legislative achievements of the government on related issues such as marine parks. People who contact their MPs about climate change could be updated about reductions in carbon pollution emissions as a result of the carbon price.

More broadly, MPs would benefit from aggregating information in those emails and comparing it with the electoral roll or other data, to gain a deeper understanding of their electorate or pockets within their electorate.

I acknowledge that this kind of communication posture needs institutional support — from the party apparatus — as well as resources to provide an effective database and training for electorate office staff. However, even simple CRMs like Highrise could make things much easier for MPs and their staff to manage digital correspondence in a more effective way.

In the modern digital world, where MPs collectively receive 15 million emails a year, it is no longer good enough to consider these emails a nuisance. Rather they should be viewed as a boon.

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