A question “who should we send our letter to?” is a hardy perennial for policy wonks. Barely a day goes by when NGOs don’t send a letter to the government, donor institutions, businesses or other key players in the international development arena – aiming to influence all sorts of different things. The question of whose name to put at the top of these letters is arguably at least as important as what we actually say in them. Who signs them is important too, but more of that another day.
This week I was set the task of collecting a bit of intelligence, on behalf of the NGO group CAFOD were writing a letter with, to investigate who our target should be. We were writing to DFID, and weighing up whether to send it to the Secretary of State, or to the senior civil servant who was actually delegated to lead on the issue.
I pinged off an email to a good contact of mine within DFID, who replied quickly saying we should speak on the phone (writing stuff down is kryptonite for political intelligence).
She described how when letters are sent to the Secretary of State by NGOs, they end up in a “sausage factory” of formal processes. The letters get recorded; there’s an obligation to reply by a certain time; and end up being farmed out to the relevant team of civil servants for drafting. Ironically enough, in the case of our letter – the person doing the drafting would likely be my contact herself.
She had seen a draft of the letter – and said she liked it and thought we had some good points to make. But she said that if she had to draft a formal reply, she would be compelled to reiterate the current position of the government, and we’d end up getting no traction at all on our issues. The obligations tied up with formal responses mean they are more likely to close down on an issue, than open it up for conversation. “The more formal the letter; the more bland the response”.
Bland responses can be just what you need sometimes – especially if you are looking for a bit of text from government that you can hold them hostage to down the road. But we were looking for a bit more shift in the government’s position.
A letter to the senior civil servant, she said, wouldn’t “show up on the system” and wouldn’t put the same requirements on the person replying. Whilst the civil servant might end up batting away the questions in the same way as they would responding to a formal letter – it was at least possible that they would actually end up having a think about the issues and coming up with a new policy direction. “Best case scenario, he won’t know what he thinks – so will pick up the phone to me, have a chat and talk it over. That’s how you get new lines developing”.
Following this conversation, our choice of addressee became a bit of a no-brainer. Lucky for us, we knew the right civil servant to write to (and also the right one to sound out on our dilemma).
But is there a general principle here? Is it always true that more informal approaches get more creative responses? It’s all too easy to assume that the most powerful strategy is to go the most powerful person – but what actually works best, in what kinds of circumstance?
It would be great to hear the experiences of other letter-writing lobbyists, to hear what has worked for you in the past.