In the context of discussions on crisis recovery amid the Covid-19 pandemic, we hear from Dr Nikki Soo on how MPs can communicate successfully with their constituents, even in times of crisis.
The United Kingdom, renowned for developing close links between representatives and their constituents, has exhibited a growing desire for political contact with MPs. Unsurprisingly, with the advent of digital technology and social media, communication demands on MPs have increased dramatically since the 1920s. Presently, politicians typically receive thousands of queries every year from constituents raising concerns or asking for action on a specific issue.
Whilst political contact is an inherent feature of the UK political system, polls have always reflected severe discontent and negative public views of their representatives and the representative processes. What can MPs do to improve constituent satisfaction and encourage further engagement? In a recent study I led with my colleagues at the University of Sheffield, we investigated if representatives could tailor their political contact (with variations in the content and timeliness of MPs’ responses) with the public to affect citizens’ satisfaction and anticipated future engagement.
The survey involved 1,500 participants responding to scenario-based questions. Respondents rated a range of hypothetical letters from MPs, emails and social media messages based on four issues that politicians might be called upon to deal with: plastic pollution, homelessness, train fares, and NHS waiting times. They were also asked to indicate how satisfied they were with the response and the likelihood of them pursuing future contact with a representative.
Our research found that 1) personalised responses can significantly improve citizens’ satisfaction with political communication and moderately improve the likelihood of re-engagement, and 2) quick responses can marginally improve citizen satisfaction and re-engagement, but not to the same degree as personalised replies.
Interestingly, it did not matter much which medium of communication (face-to-face, letter, email, or social media) was used. This is good news for MPs striving to stay connected with their constituents during this challenging period, as the world navigates the Covid-19 crisis. Small adjustments to current and future communication practices may result in positive constituent outcomes as well as enhanced civic engagement. These modifications include:
- Personalising correspondence by addressing the constituently correctly by name,
- Acknowledging the constituents’ specific concerns in the response.
- Focusing on the content that is being communicated, rather than seeking to use as many communication platforms as possible.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made these interactions even more crucial. To continue serving their constituents, MPs need to find effective ways of managing the deluge of enquiries they are likely to be receiving. What our findings suggest is that MPs should explore ways of offering personal responses to contact from citizens. They could, for example, harness the use of virtual conferencing to host advice surgeries and provide personal responses to the concerns expressed. Our research suggests that rather than feeling pressured to respond instantaneously, politicians are perceived most positively when they take the time to engage people in a personalised way.
In view of these small changes that can be made, there is also a need to factor in challenges that might make it hard for MPs to create favourable views. Individually, MPs who hold ministerial portfolios or additional responsibilities mean that they might not have the capacity to respond. Institutionally, restrictions such as parliamentary budget, equipment and training might limit how MPs manage their offices and staff. Finally, people’s view of political contact might be affected by other factors, such as party preferences.
As the UK public look to those in power for reassurance during this crisis, it is clear that efforts towards tailored responses which address citizens’ specific concerns can make the most impact. Although MPs may not always be able to create positive views, our research suggests that there are good reasons to make these small changes to attempt to improve how contact is viewed.
Dr Nikki Soo is based at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture. She is currently working on the AHRC-funded project Countering Disinformation, a project assessing how leading UK public service media are addressing and counteracting it in news reporting. Dr James Weinberg and Dr Kate Dommett are based at the Department of Politics and International Relations, The University of Sheffield. The study, One moment, please: Can the speed and quality of political contact affect democratic health?, is published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations and is available to view here.