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The Effectiveness of Letters to Officials — Recipe for Action


Although the advice given here pertains to a specific kind of issue, the basic principle can be applied when writing to officials with respect to any issue.

The recipe for action that is shown here specifically relates to the problems that an Edmonton mother has with respect to obtaining help and advice from the teachers of her daughter.  Her daughter needs some help, perhaps tutoring or attendance in special education classes, however, the teachers drag her daughter along in regular classes and allow her to pass each grade with passable but inflated marks.  They explain that this is being done so as not to do irreparable harm to the daughter's self-esteem.  

The following recipe for action is one that I found in my experiences to be very effective.  It produces very good results, too.  You must apply it!  It will work for you as well.

You write a letter to the minister of education.  I don't know who that is right now or what the proper name is for his department.  I believe that it is something like "Minister of Education and Community Affairs," but you can look up the details in the Blue Pages of the phone book.

In the letter -- you must keep it very short, about three paragraphs and preferably not more than half a page of text -- you state:  

  • A summary of your intention about assisting the educational efforts of your daughter's teachers by obtaining tutoring for her during the summer.  State that you feel that this is of the greatest importance to your daughter to prepare her for the duty and task of becoming a well-functioning and productive citizen of Alberta; that otherwise she may well suffer serious consequences from the damage to her self-esteem, due to her failure to come even close to scholastic standards;  that, with some help, she'll no doubt have no problems in overcoming her difficulties and become a productive, self-reliant citizen and not a burden to society.
  • A summary of your efforts to obtain advice from your daughter's school and teachers, and their total failure to react to your request for help.  State that it seems that your daughter's school (state the name of the school) and her teachers display the greatest imaginable apathy in the face of the difficulties that your daughter encounters in her education and that the education system is failing its mandate by not acting in the best interest of your daughter and all other children of Alberta.  State that you find this to be deplorable and and a serious neglect of duties.
  • A request for two things from the minister:
  1. Advice and assistance in determining what needs to be done for your daughter.

  2. A course of direction for action that ensures that the teachers of (name of the school) become more actively involved with the well-being of the children entrusted by parents into their care, and that a procedure be established whereby they are instructed that it is no more than common courtesy to return calls by concerned parents.

The suggestions for the contents are only the ingredients for the recipe.  Here is what you do with the letter:

Make sure that you indicate on the bottom, in the Cc-section, who'll be recipients of copies of the letter.  Some suggestions:  

  • Your MLA (That's a must!)

  • The opposition candidate (Call the opposition party to find out who the critic is on the issue)

  • The Board of Education

  • Your MP

  • The Edmonton Sun

  • Dave Rutherford (Rutherford Show)

  • The Report Newsmagazine

  • Bob Layton (Editorialist on CHED Radio)

You mail or fax your letter to all recipients.  Worms stir into action when you turn over a rock.  Bureaucrats stir into action when their actions or inactions are exposed to the light of public opinion.

It is not necessary for anyone in the media to actually publish your letter.  The mere fact that now there are some powerful people who look at and consider the bureaucracy will make the bureaucrats want to show that they are good for something after all.  The fear of public exposure is a powerful motivator and they can't run for cover.   They'll have no choice but to take action.

Phone calls are useless for stirring anyone into action.  They can be safely ignored.  Nobody will be held accountable for ignoring them.  The same is true of e-mail messages.  You may as well expect that the system will change if you express your concerns in private, over a beer in the bar.  That won't change a thing!
    However, they can't ignore your letter.  Office procedures include a mail log.  Any incoming correspondence is entered into a mail log.  The mail log records also who'll be answering your letter, especially if the letter was sent by registered mail or by fax.  There'll be a paper trail of the fate of your complaints.  Everybody knows about that trail, and you and other people know about it as well.  The fact that you made your complaint will be on record and be public knowledge.

Don't worry, they'll answer your letter and answer it in writing.  If the answer is nothing more than an inane put-off, that's when you have them.  That's when they'll be really vulnerable, because, if they don't provide constructive advice ("We'll take this under advisement" isn't).  That is then proof that not only Kristin's teachers are pathetic and should be fired, but that the problem is endemic in the whole education system, which, of course, we all know to be the sad truth.  If they don't answer at all, which is extremely unlikely to happen, you've got them over a barrel too.  In either case you'll expand your media campaign, by writing a follow-up letter to official, using the same list of people in the Cc-section of further letters you write.
    If they call you back on account of the letter you sent, you demand a written response.  Consider that, regardless of what you are being told on the phone, bureaucrats and politicians are experts at denials, and a phone call is inadmissible evidence for any wrong-doing.
    However, in all you write, be assertive but polite.  Most of all, be sure that your facts are correct.

Be aware that the politicians are very concerned about letters like that.  Each such letter is considered to be representative of the opinions of hundreds, if not thousands of voters (the range is 400 to 2,500, depending on whether the letter is sent to MLAs, MPs, or Senators, but in your specific case it is a provincial issue).

If you think that all of this is a lot of work (it isn't) and not worth the effort (it is worth it, or else you would not be reading this right now), then why should anyone else have any concern at all about your problem and do anything about it?

_________
Posted 1999 06 21
Updates:
2001 02 05 (format changes)
2002 10 23 (minor edits)