An Advocacy Guide for Psychologists

PSYCHOLOGY AND PUBLIC POLICY

 

 

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How to Communicate Effectively with Members of Parliament

Identifying and Locating Your Member of Parliament

The first step in effective communication with the House of Commons is determining the right person to contact. It is generally most effective to contact your own Member of Parliament - the woman or man who represents your electoral riding. As your elected official, this is the person who represents you and who must be sensitive to your views. Members of Parliament (MPs) maintain both an Ottawa office and a local office located back home. You can identify and locate your MP by looking in the blue pages of your telephone book.

There may be occasions, however, when it will be appropriate and helpful to contact other MPs. For example, when the Chair of a Parliamentary Committee wishes to monitor broad public opinion at a critical point in the legislative process, or when you have special expertise in a specific area in which a Parliamentary Committee is developing policy, your communication with them can be important. Contact CPA if you are interested in developing communications beyond your own MP.

Once you know whom to contact, you can obtain his or her Ottawa office telephone number, or be connected with the Ottawa office directly, by calling the Canadian Government Public Information Office at (613) 992-4793. The Ottawa offices can give you addresses and telephone numbers for local riding offices, government departments, Ministers of the Crown, etc. You also can find this information on the Internet at: http://www.canada.gc.ca.

Understanding the Role of House of Commons Staff

The bureaucracy carries on the business of government. Government officials remain as political parties are voted in and out of office. Bureaucrats are very influential in the development and implementation of laws and public policy. Effective relations with the civil service are very important.

Whether calling, writing, or visiting a House of Commons office, it is important to understand the role of your MP’s staff members. Most MP’s offices will have an assistant, handling your area of interest. Each Parliamentarian relies heavily on his or her staff to be knowledgeable and informed on the issues. Because the information and advice they provide is often critical in shaping the MP’s opinion on an issue, any time spent discussing your views with them will be a good investment.

In addition to the staff members in the MP’s personal office, the committees of Parliament also have professional staff members. These staff members are often more focused in their responsibilities. While a personal staff member usually has multiple subject areas of responsibility (e.g., covering science, defence, budget, environmental, and health issues), a committee staff member is often able to specialize in a small number of areas and to acquire expertise in them. These staff members work for the MP who chairs the committee or the vice-chair.

Staff members in MPs’ personal riding offices serve still a different function. These staff members take care of the lawmaker’s appointments and appearances in the riding. They also serve as caseworkers who help to resolve the problems of the riding’s citizens as they relate to federal programs. For example, a riding office member can help determine why a Canadian Pension Plan recipient’s cheque is late. Usually members of the riding office staff are not involved in issues of public policy-making. They are, however, trusted sources of information and have frequent contact with the politician.

Write a Letter

House of Commons offices in Ottawa receive hundreds of letters from constituents each day. These guidelines will improve the effectiveness of your letter (for models of letters, please refer to Appendix A).

When addressing correspondence, this is the proper style:

Either   or

Ms Jane Smith, MP
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6

Dear Member of Parliament:

 

The Honorable John Jones, PC, MP
Minister of_____________
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6

Dear Minister:

Be direct. State the subject of your letter clearly, keep it brief and address only one issue in each letter.

Be accurate. Beware of false or misleading information. Always double-check if you are not sure.

Be informative. State your own views, support them with your expert knowledge, and cite the bill number (Bill C-###) of relevant legislation, if appropriate. Your personally written letter is more highly regarded than pre-printed materials or postcards.

Be courteous. NEVER THREATEN your MP. Keep in mind that there may be other issues where psychology will lobby this MP. A cordial relationship keeps the door open.

Be constructive. Rely on the facts and avoid emotional arguments, threats of political influence, or demands.

Personalize your message. Cite examples from your own experience to support your position. Give personal examples of how the issue will impact your community.

Be political. Explain the hometown relevance of this issue. Use your institution’s stationery, if authorized.

Be discriminating. Write only on the issues that are very important to you and avoid the risk of diluting your effectiveness.

Be inquiring. Ask for the MP’s view on the subject and how she or he intends to vote on relevant legislation. Expect a reply, even if it’s only a form letter.

Be available. Offer additional information if needed and make sure your MP knows how to reach you.

Be appreciative. Remember to say "thanks" when it is deserved. Follow the issue after you write and send a letter of thanks if your MP votes your way.

Remember, no postage is required to mail a letter to your MP in Canada. Furthermore, since a fax gets more attention, faster, send it also by fax.

Follow-up Your Letter

MPs’ offices receive hundreds of pieces of mail every day, which means it can take a week or more to research properly the issue and to answer your letter. If you don’t hear from them after three or four weeks, however, follow up with a phone call, or with another letter which references the first one.

  • If the reply you receive asks specific questions about the issue, make sure you respond with the answers. If you need help, call the CPA Head Office (1-888-472-0657).
  • If your representative votes or takes a public stand that reflects your position, send a thank-you. It’s just as important to let your representatives know you support a position as it is to let them know you oppose one.
  • Make sure you send copies of all your correspondence with elected officials to the address of the CPA Head Office. This allows us to track grassroots communications and determine where we might need to get more people involved.

The CPA Head Office may specifically request that you write follow-up letters to your representatives to let them know you are monitoring their positions.

Write a Letter to the Editor of Your Local Newspaper

The guidelines for writing an effective letter to the editor of a local newspaper are the same as those for effective letter writing to your MP. In fact, you can send the editor a copy of your letter to your MP.

Ask for Help

Ask friends, colleagues and relevant organizations to contact the MP as well.

Make a Telephone Call

When time is short or an issue is very pressing, you may be asked or you may want to communicate with an elected official by telephone.

The guidelines for making an effective telephone call to an MP’s office are similar to those for effective letter writing, with a few additions. Remember, you can reach your MP’s Ottawa office by dialling the Canadian Government Public Information Office at (613) 992-4793, giving the name of your MP, and asking to be connected with her or his office.

When preparing for a telephone call, start at the beginning, just like you would in a letter, remembering that the person you talk to may have just gotten off the telephone with another constituent who had a very different concern. Be prepared with facts and information at your fingertips and a clear idea of what you want your telephone call to achieve.

Before placing a call, make sure:

  • You have a clear idea of the message you want to communicate. Write the main points down and, if needed, refer to them when you make your call. If you know the bill numbers, reference them in your call.
  • Your facts and arguments are organized in a clear, coherent manner. You will have only a few minutes to make them.
  • You can state exactly what action you want taken on the issue.

You can ask to speak to your MP, but don’t be disappointed if he or she is not available. Next ask to speak with the assistant who handles the subject of your interest. Remember, this is often just as effective. If neither the MP nor the relevant staff members are available, you can ask for a return call or leave a brief message, such as, "My name is Dr. Jane Jones and I am a professor of psychology at the University of Hometown. I am calling to ask for the MP’s support on...". Be prepared to give your address or telephone number in case the MP wants to respond.

Be persistent but courteous. You may have to call back several times before you get through to either the staff person or the MP. Don’t be discouraged – no one is trying to avoid you. Just remember MPs get many calls each day – keep trying.

Arrange One-on-One Meetings

The single most effective way to communicate your message to an elected official is through a face-to-face meeting, but it may be with an assistant, not the MP. Most assistants are experts in their areas, and MPs depend heavily on their expertise to help keep them informed. The assistant can give you an idea of where the MP stands on the issue, let you know what additional information might be needed and tell you what action the MP might be able to take.

The rule for one-on-one meetings with an assistant or the MP is to plan ahead: know your facts, know your MP, and know the arguments the opposition will be using against your position.

Scheduling a Meeting

Such a meeting can take place in the MP’s Ottawa office or in the MP’s riding office. If you know your MP is going to be home for a Parliamentary recess, take advantage of this time by planning a meeting in the riding. It is usually much easier to schedule a personal appointment with an MP (even one who is a Cabinet Minister) in her or his constituency office than in their Ottawa office. Virtually all MPs have regular constituency office appointment hours. Otherwise, you may call the CPA Head Office staff who are always willing to work with you to set up such a meeting when you are in Ottawa.

Contact your MP’s Appointment Secretary, state your affiliations and the subject you wish to discuss, and ask for 15 to 20 minutes of your MP’s time. If it is clear that the MP is unable to meet with you, then a very good substitute is a meeting with the assistant in charge of the issue area you are interested in discussing. DO NOT FEEL DISCOURAGED IF YOU CANNOT MEET WITH YOUR MP. In fact, public officials have demanding schedules and depend on their assistants to research issues and report on constituent concerns. Call to confirm your meeting a few days before it is scheduled to occur.

Once the Meeting is Scheduled

Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the MP’s record as it relates to your issue. Be prepared to talk in detail and directly about the issue you wish to discuss. Know the opposing arguments as well as those in favour of your view. Have your information ready in a digestible, concise form, just as you would when writing a letter or making a telephone call. Have personal stories ready - case studies that illustrate the human side of what you’re talking about. Be able to answer specific questions on how the issue affects you, your community, the province or the country in general.

Contact the CPA Head Office to help you research the issue. They can help you find out about the MP’s record on the issue - public statements, legislation, etc. It’s much better to know if the legislator doesn’t support your position before you go in than to find out during the meeting. In addition, the CPA Head Office can help you find out how the issue has played in the press - articles, op-eds, editorial statements on local television, etc. If the press coverage has been favourable to your point of view, get copies to distribute during your meeting. CPA also works with other organizations (e.g., CCDP, CPAP, CRHSPP, CSBBCS) to help acquire material relevant to the expertise of these organizations.

Supply fact sheets. It’s important when you go that you leave something (e.g., a one-page synopsis describing the issue in bullet form) with the assistant or the MP. The CPA Head Office can help you with fact sheets, studies or position papers that help explain the issue succinctly.

During the Meeting

Be on time. But don’t be surprised if they are not. Parliamentary schedules are hectic and being a visitor to Parliament Hill often requires patience and flexibility.

Establish ties. Introduce yourself, convey information about your affiliations, and exchange pleasantries briefly. Make a point of introducing yourself to and learning the names of key staff with whom you may also meet, including the MP’s secretary or riding office manager. They may be especially helpful in the future.

Don’t waste time. Get right to the issue you wish to discuss. Don’t get bogged down in small talk. You will have a precious few minutes with the MP, and you have a purpose for the meeting.

Be inquiring. Ask your MP if he or she is familiar with your issue. If the answer is negative, take the opportunity to inform him or her. If the answer is positive, ask him or her to state his or her position. If he or she is unable to do so, then say you will check back later.

Be assertive. Know what you want in advance and ask for it.

Be respectful. Be tolerant of differing views and keep the dialogue open. State your points clearly and firmly, but don’t argue. Never speak badly of other legislators or organizations. Always be polite but don’t let politeness make you timid.

Be responsive. Try to answer questions. When you can’t, offer to get back to your MP with the information. It is much more important for you to provide accurate information than to give an answer which may be incorrect. If you aren’t sure of the answer to a question, give the CPA Head Office a call when you get home. Ask us for help in getting the necessary information and don’t forget to send it on to the MP.

Be appreciative. Always end the meeting on a courteous note. Thank him or her for the time spent with you and leave promptly. Follow up with a thank-you letter, capitalizing on the opportunity to restate your points.

Invite Your MP to Visit

Would it surprise you to know that your MP might be interested in visiting your research or practice site? Sometimes the most convincing case is the one seen first hand. If your research or programme is federally funded, then a visit from your MP is a natural. Such visits keep lawmakers in touch with the interests and needs of their constituents, inform them about less familiar subject areas, and provide you with an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with the MP. Especially attractive to an MP is the opportunity to meet a great number of concerned and involved constituents during a "Riding Work Period" when the House of Commons stands in recess. Of course, the initiative to arrange such a visit will have to come from you.

Appearances or site visits by public officials are exciting but they require planning. Here are a few tips:

  • Arrange and coordinate the event with the staff scheduler from the MP’s office. Send a written request with all of the appropriate details, such as time, place, duration of the visit, number of attendees and other guests, activities planned, etc. If you are inviting your Member of Parliament to a CPA sponsored event, you should coordinate the invitation with the CPA Head Office. We can also provide valuable advice if you are inviting them to your research or practice site.
  • You may wish to have members of the local press attend the visit. Contact your institution’s public relations office or press office for professional help. Be sure your lawmaker’s press secretary is informed before members of the press are invited. It is important to target the right reporters to invite to the event. In this case, it could be a political reporter who covers the lawmaker or it could be a science or health reporter, or all three. Your public relations or press office can invite them by sending a "media advisory" (a one-page announcement with basic information) or by sending a press release, following up with a telephone call two days before the event. You might consider having your institution’s photographer on hand and using a photograph of your MP in her or his newsletter. The CPA Head office can help with questions you might have about inviting the press. The CPA’s Working with the Media : A Guide for Psychologists is a valuable resource.
  • Notify anyone who will be affected by the visit, such as colleagues in your department and the university administration, well in advance, and again the day before the event.
  • Provide the MP’s office with precise and detailed directions to the event and designate a contact person who will be available as a liaison in advance of the event.
  • Meet the MP before the event, allow time for introductions, and provide a briefing on the itinerary and a time schedule for the event. Discuss important factors surrounding the visit, for example, how many scientists or practitioners are in the facility, or the amount and source of federal funds received.
  • Introduce your guest. Give a brief explanation of why he or she is visiting, and announce whether or not there will be a question and answer session.
  • Follow up on any commitments made to the MP at the event. Coordinate with the MP’s press secretary on the details of a press release, if called for.
  • Don’t forget to send a thank you note, possibly containing photographs taken during the event, as well as press clippings or news coverage generated by the event. Send information and photos to the CPA Head Office for inclusion in Psynopsis.

Build Relationships With Elected Officials

Good politics depend on ongoing ties with both your MP and their staff.

One of the most effective ways to keep in touch is to get to know staff in your MP’s personal riding office. Riding offices are always looking for activities for the MP while he or she is in the Riding - they generally welcome suggestions for events, especially if there is some press potential. For example, say psychologists in your province want to promote the pro-bono services psychologists are donating to disaster relief services. Contact the local office of your MP, tell them what you are doing, and invite the MP to be a part of the press conference you are holding to announce it. The riding director can then call the Ottawa office to suggest your press conference might be a good event for the MP to attend.

There are a wide variety of ways to interact with your elected officials:

  • arrange a lunch, dinner meeting or reception in honour of a particular MP;
  • invite representatives to speak at psychological association conferences or meetings;
  • recognize your representative’s activities on behalf of psychology in your psychology association newsletter;
  • award a particularly responsive legislator with a certificate or plaque;
  • identify certain press venues that are appropriate vehicles for interacting with your legislators.

Form Coalitions

Coalitions are an integral part of successful grassroots campaigns. They help us extend our reach and broaden our message. Strong coalitions are made up of individuals or groups with similar interests. As a general rule, those groups with which psychologists regularly do business are the natural place to look for potential coalition partners. Health care groups, civic organizations, issue-oriented groups like associations of retired persons or alliances for the mentally ill, children’s groups, community mental health centres, community action groups, consumer interest groups, educators, business and industry organizations - all these are natural allies for many of psychology’s issues.

If you have any contacts within these groups that you think would be open to coalition building, contact the CPA Head Office. You will receive some help to determine whether or not that organization is an appropriate partner given the CPA overall legislative agenda. Once that has been determined, you can work on building the relationship.


Appendix A
Table of contents

Canadian Psychological Association