“Will 38 degrees please stop spamming my inbox?”

Summary

Some thoughts on 38 degrees following comments from a number of MPs, Westminster & Whitehall insiders, and seasoned campaigners

I took Puffles along to an event on the ‘social mediatisation’ of politics at the London HQ of the European Parliament – somewhere which Puffles is becoming a bit of a familiar face. There were more than a few familiar Twitter people there, including Puffles’ chum Stella Creasy. (This is what a besotted dragon fairy looks like). It was during the exchanges in the first session that the online campaign group 38 Degrees was raised – and torn to pieces.

“38 Degrees? Is that like an 80s soul tribute band?”

No, you’re confusing them with the Three Degrees.

“What is/who are 38 degrees?”

The link here should explain. Essentially it’s an online take of petitioning, just on a massive scale. So massive that their 2011/12 company accounts make for a very interesting read. Not in an *Oooh! They’ve got something to hide!* kind of way, but actually it’s something that anyone who has taken part in, is active within and/or who has fundraised for 38 degrees may learn from. In particular to inform how they hold their full time staff to account. Because it’s a big operation, spending over £1million in that financial year.

“£1million?!!? Where did they get the money from?”

It’s all in their accounts linked above, with mentions of grants from charitable trusts here. It’s one of the reasons why they have to submit an annual report: Charitable trusts have a number of terms and conditions regarding governance of organisations that they make grants to. Compared to other think tanks and campaign groups, they’ve actually been pretty transparent. But transparency isn’t the issue: it’s their campaigning tactics that are causing problems

“Yeah Pooffles, that’s the whole idea of campaigning: To annoy the hell out of politicians until they back down and do as we demand!”

Well…not quite. There different ways and means of achieving your ends. The question at the moment is whether 38 degrees are achieving their desired aims. Page 3 of their annual report indicates what those are.

I’m just going to pick a few blogposts from over the past couple of years that are critical of 38 Degrees’ approach:

Each of those articles speaks for themselves and I’ll leave it to the authors of those articles to defend their blogposts.

There are however, a few things that I’d like to pick up on

1) The nature of broad brush clicktivism is that it can annoy the hell out of the people you want /who are on your side, as well as those you are seeking to persuade

Both Julian Huppert, my local MP, and Stella Creasy have mentioned this. This reflects how the 38 degrees approach needs to be refined quite significantly so that the activities or the organisation don’t become an unnecessary burden on those who are otherwise sympathetic to the cause they are promoting.

Given that MPs have limited back office staff, valuable time has to be spent culling inboxes when such time could be spent helping constituents. In the grand scheme of things, many MPs take their constituency work very seriously – not least because they have a public and constitutional duty to ALL the people that live in their constituency, not just those that voted for them. For an economically deprived inner city area like Stella’s in Walthamstow, this is a serious issue because she gets thousands of cases to deal with every year – as does Julian as it turns out. Every minute spent dealing with a direct-mail-style email from a campaign group is a minute not spent on someone’s constituency issue. An MP’s first duty is to their constituents too, not to some direct-emailer from outside the constituency.

2) What is the statistical basis for the claims made of 38 Degrees’ claimed successes?

See the bottom of page 2 of their annual report. What I’m not questioning is whether or not 38 degrees had an impact. They clearly did. What I am questioning is the extent, positive or negative, it can be quantified. This we may probably never know – not least because ministers have a political interest in downplaying the influence of an organisation that in the grand scheme of things is hostile to the programme of the Coalition. Also, how do you put a number on it?

You also have the eternal problem of left-wing turfwars. Someone could make a spoof radio show called “Whose campaign is it anyway?” The serious point is what Zoe Stavri calls ‘astroturfing’. This Twitter exchange makes for interesting reading on that front - it was that exchange that kicked off this blogpost, as several of my more academically qualified Twitterfriends started throwing tough questions. Seriously kids, dismiss them at your peril – they know their stuff.

3) Turfwars (sort of continued from above)

This is something that remains a tension as each group tries to brand every other protest going as ‘their’ protest. The bedroom tax was one of them. Is this  What some of Puffles’ Twitterfollowers have accused 38 Degrees of doing is the online equivalent of what far left organisations do with their pre-printed and mass-produced placards around every passing bandwagon. It reminds me of the tensions in Brighton when I lived there over a decade ago – around the time of the big anti-capitalist demonstrations. The tensions are best described in this pamphlet Monopolise Resistance from 2001. “This is a protest, not a paper sale” was something I regularly saw when autonomously-minded activists organised local demonstrations, in particular the 2001 Brighton bin men strike & occupation. At the time I was a volunteer at the local library, internet cafe & information centre at the then Gardner Street premises of the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre. Hence feeding my mind.

The point on turfwars for me is just as much about control as well as giving genuine credit to those who played an essential part in changing the outcome of something important. For me, the student protests of 2010 demonstrated that people don’t want to do the ‘top down’ style of activism anymore – where they are the footsoldiers to be directed to the next campaign front at the whims of a central steering group or committee. To be fair to 38 Degrees, they engage with their activists on deciding where to campaign next. But again, having done this the criticisms are on what they do next. In particular, at the top of the list should be identifying who is already campaigning on the issues, and then asking said people/groups: “How can we help you achieve your campaign aims?”

“But Pooffles! They are using social media, and this is good, isn’t it?”

Well, they are using social media tools, but are they using social media? They are not one and the same thing. Just because you are using social media tools doesn’t mean that you are using social media. Social media implies a conversation. In particular, it implies some sort of feedback mechanism that allows you to analyse the responses & constructive criticism you get back. Mass email-spamming campaigns don’t really allow for that. Ditto with using Twitter as a broadcast function only. You are using the tool, but not for the purpose it was necessarily designed for. Think of using a saw as a hammer. You are using a saw but you are not sawing.

Having built up a significant membership and financial base, the challenge for the likes of 38 Degrees is to refine (significantly) how they deploy both. How can they evolve their campaign tactics and not remain stuck in 2010?

“Any suggestions?”

The two that stem to mind are:

  • Overhauling electronic campaigning systems so that you are going beyond what is now being treated as email spam by both MPs and departments of state. Campaign email-spam is very easily processed and dismissed by departments of state.
  • Making use of the huge breadth and depth of expertise within your membership base. Rather than treating all of your members as identical ‘droids’ to be directed en masse, can you identify who has what expertise, bring them together online and/or face-to-face and encourage them to ask much more specific, targeted questions of those in power?

On the second point in particular, have a look at the staff profiles of 38 Degrees. Who has experience of being a nurse on an overburdened ward? Who has experience of being a secondary school teacher in a run down inner city comprehensive? Who are the tax experts that have done accountancy qualifications? Who are the environmental scientists who can unpick the data and statements that form the basis of press releases? In a nutshell, who are the people that could speak on behalf of your campaigners but from a vantage point where they cannot be dismissed as ‘professional campaigners’ but where those in power have to engage with the substance, given the expertise of those that you put forward?

Food for thought.

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16 Responses to “Will 38 degrees please stop spamming my inbox?”

  1. I think you’re too tough on 38 Degrees here. Yes, what they do is a hassle for MPs sometimes, but MPs also need better ways to deal with this pressure, especially with regard to separating out the message from the noise from such campaigns – see Clay Shirky on this.

    Also there is a problem of party political culture here – everything in UK politics has to be framed as a conflict, a us vs. them. Decent politicians like Huppert or Creasy should be the curators of 28 Degrees style campaigns themselves, in the way the Greens in Germany do so well.

    • Andrew Bower says:

      I think PBB is not hard enough on 38 Degrees. The problem isn’t “party political culture”, as much as it is fashionable to say so, it is the no compromise ever attitude of single issue campaigns. After all, what else are they going to do when they have achieved progress on their aims? It is disband or go further. They can become quite out of touch even if they appear to capture the mood at certain phases of their campaign. They are essentially Ed Balls on steroids: “no cuts, ever!”

    • Andrew Bower says:

      Surely you aren’t suggesting that 38 Degrees doesn’t adopt an “us vs them” conflict attitude? They are the epitome of it!

      • I’m not trying to attribute blame one way or another – it’s wrong on both sides for now. And 38 Degrees (and their equivalents) are not going to go away. So we better find a way to make it work better.

      • Andrew Bower says:

        Jon, I’m quite happy for 38 Degrees not to work better. They stand for everything I disagree with.

      • That misses the point. People armed with internet connections care about stuff, and will use that to mobilise. Some of it you will like, some of it I will like, but it will not go away, and you cannot wish for it to go away. If 38 Degrees disappears then something else will come to replace it, doing the same sort of things. So get over your ideological hang-ups about 38 Degrees and work out how online petitioning can better match what politicians might need.

  2. Anon says:

    When I worked for an MP dealing with the 38 degrees stuff was “Intern work”. Full time staff didn’t deal with it and the MP certainly never saw it! I’m not sure people engaging in “clicktivism” realise….

  3. Point (2) is what irritates me about 38 Degrees. When I was on their e-mail list, they’d send me an e-mail saying ‘success! We’ve stopped George Osborne feeding kittens into a wood chipper, and it’s down to you deluging MPs with pro-forma e-mails!’ There’s no acknowledgement that this might have something to do with, say, the internal dynamics of a coalition government, or the campaigns of individual politicians over a long period of time (Creasy and Huppert are good examples, actually), or the lobbying of established campaigning groups like Friends of the Earth or Liberty.

  4. I think this is a pretty accurate write-up. 38 Degrees does an excellent job of making a lot of noise about important issues and this matters – it’s demonstrably made a difference. BUT (and I said this in my blog that you linked to.. thanks for that ;-)) they then don’t follow up with the ‘so what’. The astro-turfing claim is I think a bit strong (does anybody own the campaign space?), but they do have a significant weakness it seems tm me in their inability to share the stage with people that actually deeply get the issue . Yes, people care about the issue, raise the profile etc… but then bring in the people who know the reality and work with them to get the signal above the noise.

    There are also a lot of basic mistakes in their approach (bombarding MPs and Peers is counter-productive) and continuing to hound MPs who’ve already come out in support of the argument is amateur in the extreme (Julian Huppert recently had a little pop at them over this but I’ve heard it from others in both Houses). We need 38 Degrees but we need them to be more nuanced and, dare I say it, professional.

    Jon, I’d turn your comment around, to be effective 38 Degrees need to start learning how to work with others to achieve better outcomes (although I accept the ‘others’ in this can be just as bad at siloing and are a damn site worse at campaigning!)

  5. Fair point Andy regarding where that reconciliation (if that’s the right word for it?) has got to start.

    I’d also make a connection between what people believe, and what they can actually do. 38 Degrees largely says: OK, we know a lot of people are angry about ABC, let’s direct that anger, and then let others actually solve the problem. Online activism that actually tries to solve the problem, to actually come with practical solutions, surely is a better bet?

    • I think that’s the key Jon, the missing link… where’s the action? There’s a huge risk that the likes of 38 Degrees are nothing more than a democratic placebo, they make you feel better for a while but don’t actually deal with the underlying cause. Ultimately this can be hugely destructive to democracy unless it actually appears to deliver (38 Degress clearly understand this but their response is to dramatically over-claim credit for things that happen).

      38 Degrees (or Change.org… or anyone such organisation) won’t actually achieve real impact until it can learn to partner and share, bringing in those with the subject expertise (and credibility) and – I think to back up your point Jon – someone who can actually do something in the real world.

      • Absolutely.

        Also one to look at (and at the root of some of my comments above) is the Right to Water European Citizens’ Initiative, the first such initiative to get 1 Million signatures. At one level this looks like a 38 Degrees style online petition mobilisation exercise, it is nevertheless one part of a meticulously curated campaign that relies heavily on campaign work and expertise from the German Green Party. This is the sort of thing that we need to reach in the UK – where parties are initiators sometimes, are backers sometimes, and are on the receiving end of anger at other times. At the moment much of the online campaigning work in the UK gets stuck only with the latter.

      • I’m hoping this is a maturity issue… we’re being (rightly) hard on 38 Degress here but the problem is as much that UK charities by and large have failed to grasp the nettle. They don’t really understand the new campaigning landscape and aren’t easy to work with either (the words arrogant and incompetent too often come to mind when I deal with them). The problem is that a lot of bigger charities understand government better than they do the public; they are neo-liberal stand-ins for true democratic engagement lacking any real public mandate.

        That’s got to change and 38 Degrees is a good way to wake them up. Its an interupt! The Right to Water is definitely a great example of what you can do when you have a good policy knowledge, subject expertise and campaigning nous all in one place and it’s absolutely where we have to get to! Fortunately there are a lot of really excellent people working in the campaigning field in the UK and over time (hopefully a short time) some of this has to filter through to the top of the organisations where the problem largely lies.

  6. paulgriffithsuk says:

    I remain somewhat of a social media and clickivism skeptic and I’m not sure that it will change that much and even more skeptical about it changes things much for the better. I will concede that (as Jon Worth pointed out to me on some twitter exchanges) it provides tools that lower the barrier of entry for people for people into entering into a debate, although I’m slight skeptical about how much.

    Clearly the internet enables people to find like minds more easily. However, it questionable how easily an average citizen with limited financial and time at their disposal could raise awareness of their pet issue. Clearly some people ideas will tap into a zeitgeist and will go exponential. However for most people their twitter/blog will get a the most a few hundred followers (unless of course they already have a real world profile – celebrity, politician, media pundit). The net effect is that the average citizens will be as ignored as they always were.

    Where perhaps social media can have more impact is via people (typically established celebrities or full time campaigners) using the lower the barriers to entry to get more people engaged. However even this is of questionable benefit. What attracts the attention of the public is not necessarily the important, relevant or correct. By focusing on unimportant and irrelevant issues important big picture issues can get overlooked. Typically Irrelevant issues can be make to see more scary by pressing people buttons.(typically evil corporations/poor animals/vulnerable in society for those with a left wing bias or nefarious foreigners/benefits cheats/meddling bureaucrats for those with a right wing bias). [A great example of correct but misleading arguments can be seen in Penn and Teller's campaign against Water http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi3erdgVVTw ]

    Often the focus on small issues that press people buttons (e.g. payments to the EU) can result in people overlooking larger issues (e.g. value of trade and other benefits of EU membership).As Henry Louis Mencken said “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong”. In fairness this isn’t entirely the public fault. Its very difficult with a full time job, social commitments and outside interest to have a good understand of complex issues.

    Therefore probably the biggest challenge with social media isn’t getting people engaged but actually rather the opposite… getting people to engage where they really can add value. Equally getting people to understand the different between the right to hold an opinion and the right to be listened to (the former is very important and the latter doesn’t exist!). This probably means me butting out of discussions on social media where I have very little expertise and really should know my place!

  7. David Evans says:

    I think you’re right about this. I had similar issues with the no 10 petition site, and remember getting slammed in a forum for daring to suggest that online engagement might not automatically lead to utopia. The thing people don’t get about political parties is that the grass roots activists are usually very interested and engaged with the process and the issues – local and national. Within that environment can be a broad engagement and debate amongst quite different people who get public policy but haven’t joined the Westminster bubble. This doesn’t necessarily translate into wedge issues, and a lot of consensus politics is possible over local issues. Political parties have to reach a position despite being quite diverse, and it has to make sense in the context of all their other policies…well, sort of. Single issue campaigns as a means of making policy is the death of any sanity that remains in the political process.

  8. Pingback: Friday afternoon reading: May 3, 2013 | The Democratic Society

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