Due to a general lack of understanding about how the parliamentary system works, many people will turn to politicians for help, despite the fact that they can offer little recourse. Backbench politicians, which make up the vast majority, have very little power to speed through applications, change tax structures or get jobs for people in government. The patrician-client relationship, which prevailed in many countries for centuries, has broken down thanks to strong systems and effective democratic institutions. However, the mindset among many people has not changed and, as a result, many people will contact politicians expecting an easy resolution to their issues, which they cannot provide.
What politicians can provide is guidance. They have process knowledge that constituents likely don’t have and likely will help. Politicians are also very in tuned to the groups and networks in their community. I have worked with a number of MPs who are excellent at connecting people or groups doing similar work, so they can pool their efforts together. Politicians are also well-placed to provide information about work being done on issues at the national and international levels. They are aware of the temperature and background of debates and can pass this knowledge along to constituents with interest in them.
Politicians are excellent facilitators but miracle workers, they are not.
Along with having false expectations, many people meeting with politicians are better off meeting with someone else. Community activists, lobbyists and area experts, such as academics and think tank researchers, may have more knowledge about an issue of concern than do politicians. Politicians are constantly confronted with a full range of concerns, which distracts from any one issue in particular. In many cases the result of a meeting with a politician will simply be them connecting the interested party with one of the above-mentioned experts. While meeting with a politician is always an important part of civic engagement, sometimes there are better uses of a busy person’s time, and the time of a politician.
It’s important to know who your champions are. In all likelihood, parties will already have a long-standing policy position on an issue of concern for a citizen. Becoming familiar with that before meeting with a politician is of critical importance. Meeting with a politician should have one of two clear goals: Persuade them to think differently about a position you differ on, or you want them to become a champion for your cause. If you’re simply asking for help, make sure you’re in the right office. Visiting an MP to ask for a by-law change is probably not the best approach.
Having an “in” is often important. Like getting a reference for a new General Practitioner from an existing client, it helps to close the distance and create a foundation of trust based on a reduction in degrees of separation. Connecting with someone in the circle of a politician in advance will lead to a more open conversation and possibly a better result.
One final point, politicians are human. Many do not respond well to deference and reverence. While expressing a degree of respect is important, being relaxed but cordial will lead to a more meaningful conversation and possibly a long-term relationship.