Writing to authorities: is it worthwhile?

Published as "From the national president" in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), October 1996, pp. 1-2.

Brian Martin

Whistleblowers have written many thousands of letters to politicians, government departments, ombudspeople and the like. Indeed, some individual whistleblowers have written hundreds of letters on their own. Is this a worthwhile method of getting results?

Letters can be about corruption, dangers to the public or whatever the correspondent is concerned about. They can also be to protest against attacks on whistleblowers.

Speaking to a politician face-to-face or by phone often can produce better results than a letter, though even in these cases a follow-up letter is useful. But it can be quite difficult to actually get to speak to a politician. As well, a letter has the advantage of providing a permanent record.

If you write a letter to the Prime Minister or some other minister, it is normally referred to the relevant department. It is passed down the bureaucratic hierarchy to some public servant who is assigned the responsibility of drafting a reply. The draft is then passed back up the hierarchy, sometimes being modified on the way. It is quite unusual for a minister to actually read a reply, even when his or her name goes at the bottom of the letter, which is not very often for "important" politicians.

What you receive is a response from some public servant.

I talked to three public servants who gave me candid comments on how the system operates. I'll start with the most optimistic account.

Chris is a relatively new public servant who drafts replies to letters written to a leading minister. She is told by others to be as bland as possible. However, she prefers to be more conscientious. As well as finding out the other side of the story to that of the letter-writer, she sometimes will follow up the issue by ringing other departments to ensure that some action is taken. For example, if the matter falls within the jurisdiction of a state government, she will write a note or ring relevant people to make sure they respond, instead of just writing back to the letter-writer to say that the matter is one for the state government. She says that a small percentage of public servants go out of their way to help letter-writers, but most give perfunctory responses.

Chris recommends that letter-writers ask one or two specific questions. For example, "Is the minister aware of X? What are you going to do about it? I'm looking forward to your answer." Such direct questions are more difficult to wriggle out of. She also says that there is lots of shuffling of letters between departments to find the right place. Therefore, you should find out beforehand exactly who you should write to. Also, send copies to other departments to make sure you are not fobbed off. Chris also recommends sending copies to opposition ministers.

Thomas has years of experience in a major government department. He says that an individual person's complaint is normally ignored or dismissed. The department can stall by interpreting regulations differently, not responding, delaying through referral to committees, and a host of other methods. Public servants are trained in how to respond to protect current policy, in other words how to lie.

In Thomas's view, writing letters will only have an impact if the writer represents a powerful force, such as a large number of people or prestigious figures such as judges, in which case writing may not be required anyway. The other time writing can have an impact is when potentially damaging disclosures might be made unless action is taken. Such disclosures could be made to the media. According to Thomas, media coverage is detested by bureaucrats and is the best way to get action. It is a waste of time for a whistleblower just to write a letter, since the power of the whistleblower comes from publicity.

Chris notes that when it comes to potentially damaging disclosures, contacting opposition politicians is sometimes effective. They want to embarrass the government, at least on some issues, especially through asking questions in Parliament.

Alan has an even more cynical view of writing letters. He believes that many letters from whistleblowers, even though sent to different departments, are referred to the same department where they are answered by the same person!

This is quite possible since there are very detailed systems of numbering and tracking of letters. Thus, a whistleblower may have the illusion of contacting different authorities when actually being thwarted in the same way over and over. Alan would go even further to suggest that writing to the government provides a way for a small group of public servants to keep tabs on whistleblowers.

The general message from these individuals, as well as others I've talked to, is that writing letters to government is largely a waste of time, though there are a few public servants and politicians who will do what they can for you.

Far better is to circulate your letter at your workplace or send it to the local newspaper. Find out the name of the journalist who covers your area of concern and then ring up to talk to them. With a bit of direct distribution and media coverage, the government will find out about your concerns quickly enough.

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