For those people in public affairs and policy jobs who haven’t worked in Parliament, it can be a challenge to grasp why sometimes the Diary Manager is king, or how exactly the internal relationships work in an MPs office. These are things that matter if you want to make your work with any MP as successful as possible!
So, to that end, let’s examine an imaginary Member of Parliament: Joe Bloggs MP.
Joe Bloggs MP
Joe is a bullish backbencher from the ’97 intake who still harbours thoughts of advancement. Even though the closest he’s come to the front bench so far is passing notes to the environment secretary for two months in early ’99, there is some truth to Joe’s claim that “his talent isn’t recognised”.
None of his constituents are aware of it, but Joe is not just an MP – he’s also the Chief Executive of something called The Office of Joe Bloggs MP.
Joe is the public face of a whole range of activity that goes on in his name. He will be overseeing and instructing a number of people who in turn shape his achievements, coax him into decisions, act as his gatekeepers, and moan about him when he isn’t there.
Joe Bloggs may well have been busted during the expenses scandal for claiming back the cost of an ornate golden throne for his pet duck. But even when this was added to the free mortgages, first class train travel and John Lewis home appliances, the majority of his expenses were spent on salaries for his staff members and other associated costs.
His staff are not civil servants and nothing they do is captured by the Freedom of Information Act – they are treated as Joe’s politically active employees, and he in turn claims back the expense of that employment from the state.
Unless you have Joe’s mobile phone number, you’ll inevitably need to go through this team to get to him, especially if you’re co-operating with him at length on a joint issue.
So Who Lives in an Office Like This?
Every Member of Parliament is allocated a budget to set up and run offices, normally one in Parliament and one in their constituency, as well as staff to run them. Exactly how many staff there are in these offices, and what they do, will boil down to how the MP decides to configure things. A typical MP though will have one or more people covering the following roles:
Parliamentary Assistant (in pre-2010 parlance, the Parliamentary Researcher)
The Parliamentary Assistant is typically based in Westminster and helps an MP execute their duties as they relate to Parliament, whether this involves issues relating to constituency or national interests.
The Parliamentary Assistant is often the individual that public affairs professionals want to speak to if not the boss. So what do they do…?
- Writing speeches and briefings, and submitting questions, motions or amendments in their boss’s name. They will often have a good grasp of House of Commons procedure as a result.
- Many handle press for any national activity or campaigns the MP may be engaged in (e.g. writing press releases, fielding calls from journalists).
- Managing the Parliamentary office and running an ad-hoc IT support desk (“Why isn’t my laptop working? How do I tweet?”)
- At party conference and in a number of other contexts it’s normally the researcher who’s dashing around after their boss, demonstrating where the “bag carrier” nickname comes from.
- The Parliamentary office may well be responsible for handling letters from constituents focusing on national issues.
- In the world of coalition politics, it isn’t always possible for government backbenchers to rely on the pronouncements from Secretaries of State for their policy lines. If an MP is prominent within their party on a certain policy brief – for instance, if they are a minister in a Department whose Secretary of State is from a different party – then their researcher, as a politically active staff member, will often be helping to develop and field party specific lines to fellow backbench MPs, as civil servants within the department will be unable to do so. This is especially true for the Coalition Government, where junior ministers typically do not have special advisers.
- Similarly, opposition frontbencher’s researchers will often be assisting alongside the party’s special advisers to develop and internally communicate their MP’s policy positions – and, by extension, whatever the rest of the party is saying in that area.
After enough time, some researchers will have an active role in influencing their boss’s outlook on whatever issues they are pursuing.Others, simply because of their boss’s personality or preferences, will have very little influence over them.
Caseworkers are normally based in the constituency office. Casework falls into three broad categories:
- National policy issues (e.g. war in Syria, Department for Work and Pensions changes to benefits, etc)
- Local issues (the council changing a bus route, opposition to a building development)
- Personal issues (an individual asking for help with specific problems in their lives – anything from a parking ticket to an asylum claim).
While most MPs schedule casework surgeries and meetings with constituents to discuss individual cases, the bulk of their responses will be drafted by their caseworker who will almost always deal with constituents’ local and personal concerns, and probably enquiries about national policy issues as well.
An MPs’ local and national political goals will often be influenced by what is turning up in their post bag and email inbox.
A busy MP almost inevitably needs full time support to make sense of their diary. It can be difficult to understand the sheer volume of invitations that an MP gets, or the level of administrative effort it requires to answer 80% of them with a polite “no”.
Even in the age of smart phones, when MPs can change their own calendars on the spot, the Diary Manager often has final say on how their plans look.
Let’s say you bump into an MP and miraculously convince them to add a meeting in next week with you on their phone. If they haven’t cleared it with the Diary Manager first, it’s all too likely you’ll get a call explaining that slot was reserved and will you take a different time next winter?
A good rule of thumb is that even when the Diary Manager is based in the constituency, an emailed meeting request should go directly to the MP’s publicly available email (which their staff can normally access).
A paper invitation should go to the Westminster office if it doesn’t relate to their constituency. Most importantly, always follow the Diary Manager’s instructions on how they want the invite sent. You can call ahead to flag something important but if they tell you to hang up and email then do so. Your invite might be forgotten, but then if you annoy the Diary Manager it might go straight in the bin.
Most MPs will have a system for regularly discussing with their diary manager which invites they will fit in and which get rejected. Inevitably, these discussions get held over for days at a time when the MP is busy, and some invites can go astray before a response gets sent out.
A long wait for a response doesn’t necessarily mean no. But it’s wise to wait a week before calling to confirm that the invite was received (though without expecting a decision), and to follow up another week after that. If an event is taking place very soon (e.g. within the week) and you need an answer soon, it is best to call and explain that directly.
Remember that while in most set ups there is a full time Diary Manager running both the Westminster and constituency diaries, sometimes a staff member in each office will handle one each.
Campaigns Manager/Constituency Organiser
One of the more laborious bits of politics is the part where you actually try to win a ballot.
Even between campaigns, every day of the year will be considered the run up to one campaign or another.
The campaigns manager will be printing leaflets, organising local party campaign activities, and helping the MP and local councillors decide what their platform is for getting elected. In short, this person is helping to hold it all together at the local level.
This means not just selecting what national messages to incorporate into local communications, but also what kind of local campaigns the MP should be seen to be supporting. If trying to engage with an MP or councillors over issues in their local authority areas, it is sometimes wise to reach out to this person as well.
The (literally) poor, maligned, undervalued intern.
While the legal situation over their payment remains cloudy, and IPSA barely recognises them, it almost goes without saying that Parliament would collapse overnight without its army of intern labour.
On the bright side, a decent parliamentary internship is an excellent opportunity, very often the last internship a young graduate needs to do. Still, interns will normally be helping most with rote activities, such as:
The important thing to remember is that unless you have a direct relationship with an MP and can bypass them, your call or letter will often be fielded by an intern. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An air of familiarity or confidence – say, a personalised, handwritten letter – can be enough to convince them to put it on their boss’s desk.
On the other hand, 90% of the invites and reports that end up in Parliament’s bins are put there by interns who know their boss simply isn’t interested.
The intern can be an effective gatekeeper. So if they ask questions about your call, remember that it is important to treat every member of an MP’s office with respect and courtesy, even if they are not permanent staff – they have the prerogative to help or hinder you as they see fit.
Oliver Campion-Awwad is a former Parliamentary Assistant and Public Affairs and Communications Manager for the Advertising Association.