What happens when ministers don’t answer questions at conferences?


What happened when Puffles put The Impact of Social Media on Whitehall to the test

[Update 1 – Dr Julian Huppert submitted the questions to Mr Stunell in a letter to him dated 07 June 2012. Awaiting DCLG’s response]

My friend and former civil service colleague Maxine Moar of GrantMoar Communities invited me to a community cohesion conference that she and others had been organising for the best part of a year. Max has significant frontline experience in the field of working in deprived neighbourhoods – it was working on one such programme that I was fortunate to stumble across her. (She’s also been one of my rocks to lean on during my recent mental health crisis too). Always open to the opportunity to throw questions at politicians as well as meeting up with friends (in this case Max and later on Kate Leary (a similar rock for me to lean on, and a must for all you scientists to follow)), I wandered down to London.

Community cohesion is one of those agendas that is incredibly complex and one where everyone has to tread very carefully for fear of stepping on eggshells. During my time working on this agenda, I found my visits outside of the glass towers to be incredibly useful and enlightening. What frustrated me – and still frustrates me with the civil service is that policy officials don’t do nearly enough of it. (Visits, that is). They seldom get to feel the tug of the day-to-day issues that affect people in the communities that they are meant to be helping one way or another. I guess that was one of the things that made me different at the time: Energy of a power station, attention span of a fairy on fructose, turns up to the opening of an envelope or a front door. I like to think I’ve mellowed a little since then!

It was Max who was one of the first to invite me on a visit ‘up North’ – which to me meant north of the A14. Mixed-heritage kid (I had a lot of growing up to do – & still do now) who likes drinking full-bodied red wine and who liked ballroom dancing while having an encyclopaedic knowledge of their local football team’s good days some 20 years previous…who seemed to talk dead posh. You can imagine the fun and games they had with me – their assumptions went straight out of the window. Just being there – having made the trek from London (where I was living at the time) seemed to make a huge difference. Visits like that put the human faces onto the dry policy briefings and the glossy guidance documents that in those days were flying off of the printing presses. (It’s mainly online only these days).

The conference itself

I’m not going to go into the policy detail of the conference (titled At Ease With Itself) – I don’t consider myself a policy expert in this field. Max is. It’s why the Home Office brought her in on secondment for a year from Oldham Council. I defer to her on comments about the event. Suffice to say that to me, the picture felt pretty gloomy.

That’s all well and good, but what about your question?

Oh, that.

Tom Stannard of Blackburn Council made the point that the underlying issues around cohesion are primarily economic rather than religious or racial. At around the same time, @Rattlecans, one of my Scottish Twitter followers who I met a year ago (who takes no prisoners in all things politics) posted:

@MaxMoar I’m working class. Let’s flip this around. It’s folk in suits who need integrating! @Puffles2010

I thought there was some mileage in this – especially as the minister mentioned social mobility. This got me thinking about people at the affluent end of the economic scale. The people in the gated communities of Berkshire (around where what was the National School of Government in Sunningdale – where the minibus would regularly drive us past on residential courses) to the expensive elite private schools…what about integrating them? It’s all very well talking about ‘poor’ people integrating with each other, but when it comes to telling people what to do, the Government has been taking a bit of a kicking over the ‘We’re all in this together’ line given the affluent and privileged backgrounds much of Parliament and the Government is from.

Pointing out the disproportionate levels of privately educated people there are in the worlds of politics in particular, I asked the minister whether he was considering any specific policies to get private schools and the affluent to integrate, given Tom Stannard’s point. (I’m thinking beyond far beyond the traditional sports matches between schools) His response?

‘We have brought in VAT on private jets – something the Labour Government didn’t do in 13 years.’

…before moving on.

Lib Dem Councillor Mike Galloway, one of Puffles’ followers also asked a question – about the limits of localism – which the minister successfully dodged.

Now, in pre-social media world, I might have moaned to a couple of people at the conference and to a few after it, but not much more. In pre-social media world, I would also have agreed with Rob Berkeley of the Runnymede Trust, who said that dragons were a myth. (It was St George’s Day after all). But hey…this is social media world we’re in, and in social media world, dragons exist and dodged questions don’t go unnoticed!

So I’ve gone and tweeted my question (and Mike Galloway’s one) and the minister’s dodged responses to Puffles’ 3200+ followers and have followed it up with this blogpost – a blog that got over 8,000 hits last month.

That’s great – he’s still not answered the question.

Not yet.

My next port of call is to drop a quick email to my local MP Julian Huppert (who I met on Friday during my brief visit to SciBarCamb and who is a big fan of Puffles), asking him to put the question to the Minister (both of whom are in the same party), inviting a more substantive response. That this blog and my social media account is followed by a fair few people locally and beyond means there will inevitably be some interest in the answer that comes back. I sort of feel sorry for the HEOs who will probably be tasked with drafting the response. In pre-social media world, such responses don’t see the light of day beyond the MP & constituent concerned. But this is social media world.

How will the Minister and the department respond?

For those of you not familiar with ministerial correspondence systems, it works like this:

I write to (or in this case email) my MP with my query. Being familiar with the system, I draft my correspondence in a manner that makes it very easy for my MP to read through, go “Yes” and stick a covering letter saying

“Dear Minister, please see the enclosed piece of correspondence from Puffles’ Bestest Buddy. Grateful if you could respond to the question that he has enclosed. Love and handbags. MP”

Simples-dimples? No? For those of you unfamiliar with structuring a letter to your MP in a manner that will elicit a substantive answer, I prepared this guide.

The correspondence will then go from MP’s office to the ministerial correspondence unit of the department concerned, where a team of civil servants will allocate it to the senior civil servant (normally deputy director/Grade 5 level) responsible for the policy area. They will then be responsible for allocating it to a team leader who normally then allocates it to a policy adviser (like I used to be) to draft the response. At this point ministers normally have no idea the letter has been sent, let alone arrived unless they get collared by the MP during votes in the House.

Once the draft has been done, it will be amended by the team leader concerned – perhaps with feed in from other policy areas if the question covers several policy areas – before being signed off by the senior civil servant as ready to go to the minister’s private office. The minister’s assistant private secretaries when preparing the ‘red boxes’ of papers to read through and sign, will enclose both the draft and any briefing that may be required to annotate the draft.

If the minister is content with the draft response, pen will be put to paper and the signed letter sent off by the correspondence unit back to the MP, who then passes on the response to the constituent.

And in social media world?

Should I so desire, I can scan the response and put it up on my blog. Thus more people will see the response.

What will this mean for the civil servants concerned?

This might be the difference between including an attached briefing note or not. Chances are there will be a briefing note attached – because I’m going to put both questions in my note to my MP. The questions themselves are pretty straight forward. To my one they could simply respond that there are no current plans to look at this within the current policy framework, and for Mike’s question, chances are there will be a stock briefing ‘line to take’ on the limits of localism. Answers to both on one side of A4, job done…in pre-social media world.

But this isn’t pre-social media world

Exactly. And that is the big unknown. For me, for civil servants, for MPs, for ministers…for all of you that read and comment on this blog. Assuming Julian Huppert agrees to forward on my email (and with a good MP-to-constituent relationship on what is an issue of Coalition policy rather than party-political point-scoring, I can’t see there being any issues), it’s not just me that the Minister and his policy advisers will have to consider. It’s all of you too.

I would expect for something like this, a paragraph or two on “social media issues” might be included in any briefing. It might include things such as background information on the Twitter account – who’s behind it, number of people that follow, nature of people that follow and engage, influence (if any) that said account has. Ditto with this blog. Chances are the Minister hasn’t heard of either. There may also be a ‘handling strategy’ that might need to be cleared. Is the Minister content with a single response and to consider the matter closed? Is the Minister willing to allow a press officer, someone from the digital team or from the policy team to respond directly to comments made against the Minister’s response? The Minister has an obligation to respond to my MP but is under no obligation to respond directly to me – either personally or through this blog.

The Department for Communities and Local Government have experimented recently with live tweeting of an event – Enquiry Week. I blogged about it here. What considerations will civil servants make of both ministerial and treat official correspondence featuring in blogs? Current and former civil servants especially, feel free to respond in the comments section.


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