Thursday, November 02, 2006

Gates Project 15: "E-Mail Your MP" where MP's have no e-mail

"E-mail Your MP/Congressperson" is a standard tool in the e-advocacy toolkit. Some organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, ask their supporters to e-mail a pre-written letter to their representative which lobbies for a particular ACLU cause. Other organizations, like Britain's WritetoThem.com provide politicians' contact info and allow citizens to write a letter to their representative on any topic they'd like.

This e-advocacy method is not without its critics. In particular, mass e-mail campaigns are often blocked or ignored by representatives. Such campaigns are seen as spam which overload e-mail clients and do not necessarily reflect deep concern on the part of the sender. These point-and-click campaigns allow a constituent to send a pre-written letter to their representative in a few minutes, with little or no pre-meditation.

Nevertheless, a constituent's ability to communicate with his representative and receive a response is a basic tenet of an accountable governmental system. E-mail can facilitate this communication by greatly increasing its speed and convenience while decreasing its cost.

However, are these methods appropriate for the global south? In most of the developing world, internet penetration is very low and many people do not use e-mail. In addition, representatives themselves may not use e-mail or, because government structures lack transparency and accountability, may not make their e-mail addresses public.

Today I spoke with Tom Steinberg, founder of mySociety.org, a UK group that develops websites that help citizens communicate with government and with eachother to in order to realize tanglible improvements in their everyday lives. After looking at WritetoThem.com, which is one of Tom's projects, I asked him how it could work in a developing country where representatives did not have public e-mail addresses. Tom's answer was simple and brilliant: use paper to provide last mile connectivity between constituent and representative. Constituents could send an e-mail to their representative by accessing a website on a shared computer in an internet cafe. All e-mails would be sent to a central address and printed out periodically (say, once a week). The paper copies would then be delivered to the Parliament building where they could be distributed to MP's.

According to Tom, such a "E-mail Your MP" campaigns are a great way to highlight a lack of accountability by members of government. Two weeks after a constituent e-mails their representative through the site, the site would e-mail the constituent and ask if the representative ever responded to their e-mail. The responses to these follow-up e-mails are used to create statistics on the percentage of e-mails a respresentative responds to.
When the ranking of the differing responsiveness rates of different politicians (called a "league table") is then published it has been shown (in the UK context) to encourage some politicians to get better at responding to their mail. How? Quite simply, nobody likes appearing at the bottom of a list of their peers.

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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