This page provides you with some tips to help you influence political representatives and decision makers and highlight the important work of dietitians to them. This information is relevant regardless of where you are a based in the UK. Political influencing goes by other names - lobbying, campaigning - but is all about trying to change policy and the law.
The most important thing to consider is what you want to say and what you want the person you are contacting to do about it – having a clear message is vital. The BDA have themes and campaigns that you may wish to lobby on, and we will keep details of these updated on the Campaigns pages. Alternatively, there may be a more local issue that you wish to raise, such as changes to local dietetic services, the need for more support or to highlight a positive development. You can always contact the BDA head office team or your local board or branch for more advice and support.
We have more information on specific political campaigns on sub pages accessible on the left side of the page.
- Contact the right people. MPs, MSPs, AMs, MLAs and Councillors are only allowed to take up cases on behalf of their own constituents. Civil servants will only have responsibility to certain areas of policy, and do not comment on political matters. If you are unsure who your political representatives are, you can use this handy tool. For councillors, you will want to check on your local authority website. Civil servants may be harder to identify, but make sure you at least contact the right department and section with responsibility for your issue - if you can't identify the exact person, they may be able to direct you. Health matters are devolved so bear that in mind when choosing who to contact. Include your address when writing to politicians so they are clear that you are a constituent.
- Make sure it’s something they can help you with. They generally can’t assist with personal issues, court decisions or private disputes.
- Go through the proper channels first. Normally, a local/regional health board, CCG, local authority or similar will be responsible for the issue you are wanting to raise, so make sure that the issue has been brought to their attention before taking it to an MP, MSP etc. The rest of the Stand Up for Dietetics pages have lots of handy information on identifying and influencing other stakeholders.
- Do your research. Politicians will normally have plenty of information about them on their website, and websites such as theyworkforyou.com and the parliament/assembly websites are also good sources. Do they follow a particular diet or have experience of medical issues such as diabetes? Have they asked lots of questions about elderly care issues in the past? Knowing about them and their areas of interest them means you can tailor your message for more impact.It may be harder to find this sort of information our about a civil servant.
- Less is more. Trying to cover too many topics or inundating their office with correspondence is not effective. Keep all communication succinct and to the point.
- An issue raised by multiple constituents is more likely to grab a politician’s attention. Encourage your colleagues and patients to contact them as well (if appropriate). In doing so, make sure you’re consistent in what you say, but avoid using carbon copy letters.
- Be polite, even if it’s an issue you are very passionate about. Politicians and civil servants (like most people!) will not respond well to abuse.
- Send a copy of your correspondence to the BDA Public Affairs Officer!
The best way to influence a politician is to meet them face to face. You can normally find the contact details and surgery dates on the web. The best method is to call their office to arrange an appointment, and then follow up with an email to confirm your attendance and to outline what it is you want to talk to them about. Some will hold open drop-in surgeries that will operate on a first come first serve basis, but it is still worth writing or calling in advance.
When you meet with your representative, have a clear idea of what you want to discuss, what you want them to do to help, and try to keep things to a few key points. You might have only five or ten minutes or so to speak with them if it is a busy day. Be sure to thank them for meeting with you and give them an opportunity to ask you questions; try not to dominate proceedings!
If it is a matter the politician can assist with, they might agree to write to a minister or raise the issue on your behalf. If this is the case, give them a few weeks to do so before writing to see if they have had a reply or an opportunity to raise the issue. Try to have something to leave with them which outlines your points – the BDA normally provide briefing sheets or pamphlets for issues on which we are campaigning. If not, a short briefing note on one or two sides of A4 is ideal. You could also invite them to visit your service to learn more.
If you can’t meet your local representative, you can write to them to set out your concerns or views. A hard copy letter is best as surveys show it is still the most read form of correspondence, but an email is also good (ideally do both). Make it clear what the issue is and what you would like them to do about it. Try if at all possible to restrict yourself to one side of A4.
Politicians (or their caseworkers) respond to nearly all correspondence from constituents, normally within a few weeks (although they may be slower at busy times of the year or during recess). If you don’t hear back within three weeks, give their constituency office a call, and ask whether progress has been made with your letter.
The BDA will from time to time include an example letter as part of a campaign or theme. You can use this as the basis for your own letter, but it is always better to write in your own style rather than sending a template. Politician’s offices are much more likely to ignore correspondence if they receive a number of identical looking letters.
If you really want to engage with a politician, you could invite them to visit your service. This can be a great way to highlight positive work you are doing, a service that is under threat or generate local media interest in dietetics. It is also a good way to make them a champion for the profession, as it gives them a story to tell if they take part in debates or raise questions.
Politicians are normally only interested in services that affect their constituents, so bear that in mind. Although a politician will, for example, visit a hospital that is not in their constituency if it serves a whole area, you are more likely to have success if the meeting takes place in their constituency.
You could include such an invitation in a letter or email, or bring it up as part of your meeting at a constituency surgery (if you live in the constituency where you work). You might need to follow up and pester their office to ensure your visit goes in the diary. Politicians’ diaries are extremely busy, and they will often need to be in Parliament/Assembly during most of the week. Flexibility is key. Fridays, when politicians normally return to their constituencies, are when you are most likely to secure a visit. Local councillors will generally have slightly more flexibility, but most have other jobs.
Make sure you have the appropriate permissions from your employers before inviting the politician, and that you have some interesting things on the agenda to highlight to them. Make sure you share a running order for the visit with their office in advance so they know what to expect. Brief your colleagues ahead of the visit about what you are seeking to promote or discuss; it’s important to be consistent in your message. Avoid nasty surprises, and don’t aim to ambush them with difficult questions; this isn’t constructive.
It might be that the visit is fairly short, perhaps only half an hour to an hour so aim to pack a few things in. Allow some flexibility in your agenda as politicians will often be late, or need to rush off early to make other appointments. They will probably bring at least one member of their staff with them – these are good people to know as they will do most of the legwork in the constituency.
Make sure you have access to a camera so you can record the visit and use in follow-up media releases, social media or newsletters. The politician will normally be very keen to highlight the visit on social media and on their website. Make sure you follow up the visit by email or phone to thank them for attending and perhaps provide a more detailed briefing – and share the photos!
Although politicians get most of the attention, most of the actual work of advising on, creating and implementing policy falls to civil servants working in government departments or for executive agencies. Of course, they do so from a strictly politically-neutral standpoint. This makes them important people to know and influence, but for different reasons to politicians. Civil servants will not determine the overall policy direction, but once this has been decided they will have a significant say over how it is actually developed and put into place.
If you can identify the right civil servants to speak to, you can help to ensure policy implementation and creation is well informed. Indeed, civil servants will often be welcoming of constructive input which might help them overcome a policy problem or avoid a mistake.
As with politicians, writing to or meeting with a civil servant may be the best way to put across your point of view. Don't aim for someone too senior, as you are much less likely to get engagement and if you do it is likely to be less helpful. Policy experts at slightly lower levels are actually likely to be better informed on the topic and more closely involved with the actual work you wish to influence.
It is important to remember that civil servant are politically neutral, and have to offer balanced and evidence-based views. Back up your own arguments with robust evidence, but also consider in advance what others will be telling them. On a big policy issue, you may be one of many hundreds of people offering views and information to a government department. Work with others to help you make your case collectively. Also make sure you provide evidence in written form, not just verbally, and take any opportunity to respond to official consultations on a policy.
We can help
If you want advice or support in contacting, influencing or lobbying your local representatives or on a campaigning issue, please contact Tom Embury, the BDA Public Affairs Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’d also be really grateful if you could copy any communication you have with your politicians to us so we can keep a track of how and who we are influencing.