How to survive your first ten days in the constituency office

This page last updated: 26 April 2011

This guide links with How to do Casework‘. Have a read through that guide as well.  The author of both guides survived, is now an experienced constituency office manager,
and has lived to tell the tale – as will you.  Now, read on!

 

  • Introduction
  • Day 1  –  six urgent tasks
  • Day 2  –  training opportunities, your computer, local contacts
  • Day 3  –  dealing with constituents
  • Day 4  –  stationery and standard letters/forms
  • Day 5  –  an agenda for the boss
  • Day 6  –  the diary, constituency casework toolkit, data protection
  • Day 7  –  finances, press cuttings, health and safety
  • Day 8  –  the internet, twitter and facebook, more on computers, working from home
  • Day 9  –  volunteers, work experience, interns, other MPs’ offices, trade union membership
  • Day 10 – prioritising your work, weekly report for your MP, W4MP website
  • In conclusion

 

Introduction

It’s often tough, not necessarily well paid, the hours can be long, and quite often you may not enjoy overly salubrious surroundings. However, working for an MP is undoubtedly a very privileged position.  You will meet some fantastic people in your role.  You are the first port of call working in the Constituency Office – often for constituents who, at times, will present seemingly intractable problems – you will often be the de facto MP!

No two working days are ever the same.  Enjoy your work and, if this simple guide (which contains little rocket science) genuinely assists you, then I can breathe another sigh of relief.

The guide is aimed primarily at staff working in the constituency; however there’s a specific guide for Westminster staff here. It’s probably a good idea to read both when you have a chance; you’ll be working with them every day so it helps to know what they do!

Health warning: the sequence of events I’ve described below may not actually work out blow for blow for you in your new role.  However at some point during your first week or two you will encounter at some point all of the following!

 

Day 1- six urgent tasks

On my first day working for an MP I was presented with a five inch pile of paper, including constituents letters, invites, diary enquiries and invoices.  I had no idea what to do with anything.  No need to panic.

For your first day, if you only manage to get six tasks accomplished, I would strongly recommend the following

  1. Set yourself up with a parliamentary email account.
    Telephone the Parliamentary Information Communications Technology (PICT) on 0207 219 2001.  The staff at PICT will guide you through exactly what you have to do.  Working in the Constituency Office of an MP today is no different to working in any other office.  You will rely extremely heavily on computers and extraordinarily large volumes of email.  The staff at PICT will probably become good friends to you (more on this later) and I have always found them extremely helpful and technically very competent.
  2. Ask your Member for a date that week to meet you.
    MPs are busy people.  The majority of the week they are away from you in Westminster and not in the Constituency.   It is therefore imperative that, even if it is only one hour on a Friday morning of your first week, you sit down with your Member and work out exactly how you are going to make the office work, what the Member’s expectations are and so on (see Day 5 for a thorough itinerary of everything to discuss).
  3. Set up an account with a local newsagent for the local papers.
    Working in the Constituency Office you are the eyes and ears of the MP whilst he/she is in Westminster.  What’s in the local press is of paramount importance to your Member and you need to keep on top of all of the local “issues” that are taking place.  There might be breaking local news on a school or hospital opening or proposed for closure, an announcement on a controversial planning matter or a report on a local football club that needs a new home.  Your Member may well expect briefings on what’s happening so, by having the local papers delivered to the office daily/weekly, and by you absorbing all the relevant information, you will be a step ahead.  It doesn’t mean you personally have to resolve all the issues – awareness is vitally important though.
  4. Make contact with your opposite number in the Westminster Office.
    Most MPs (not all) have both a Constituency Office and a Westminster Office.  The work that the two offices do can be very different.  If your Member has a Westminster Office, find out exactly what work they undertake, what hours they work, the preferred method of contact (‘phone, email).   You may find, for example, that your Westminster Office manages the MP’s Diary, organises House of Commons Tours, deals with policy issues, and helps with speech writing.  In the Constituency Office you may be casework-focussed, organise surgeries, liaise with the respective political party organisation and local stakeholders (i.e. local authorities, citizens advice bureau, pressure groups, etc). Try and organise a visit to the Westminster office and, when you do, make sure you have a good look at all the places you are supposed to know about. Offer to buy lunch for your Westminster colleague….well OK…a cuppa – in return for a tour of all those places you’ve heard about and it would be helpful to have actually seen. Meanwhile, you can undertake an online tour of the building by looking at the Virtual Tours page.
  5. Find out where the nearest post box is.
    Even with copious amounts of email, you will need to post letters.  Not all constituents have computers and access to the internet; therefore you will receive plenty of letters by post and will need to reply via the Royal Mail.
  6. The telephone.
    Familiarise yourself on your first day with all aspects of how your telephone system works, answerphone, etc. Some days you might get 3 calls all day, others it will be a great many more.

For all of these six tasks, it will of course be easier if you have other people working with you in the Constituency Office on an existing basis; they will help and guide you.

 

 

Day 2 – training opportunities, your computer, local contacts

For ease of reference I’ve again numbered the following tasks that may assist you as follows:

  1. If casework on behalf of the Member is going to part of your role….
    …..it is important to avail yourself of training opportunities that are available (see also the separate guide on casework).  To find out about training available for Members’ staff see our training pages.   Most of this training is in London but some is arranged at a regional level. Do book a day’s Induction course for yourself ASAP.
  2. Your own computer.
    Once you have been allocated your own computer it will be important, because of the myriad of subjects you will deal with, to create lots of different folders on your pc for the specialist subjects you will deal with.  It will then be much easier for you to find something your Member asks for.  Believe me, I learnt this lesson quite quickly and I now have over 30 special folders on my pc so I am easily able to retrieve any bit of information that is required urgently!
  3. Ring the Editor of the local newspaper.
    You will get lots of calls from the press wanting comment from your Member on every subject in the world you can think of.  Simply introduce yourself, find out from them the deadlines for articles each week and have a chat to them about local issues.  Find out from your Member the type of story they are looking for from a local angle, too.
  4. Ring the Chief Executive of the Local Authority – maybe even pay them a visit.
    They will be a key contact for you in all of your work.  Many constituents will contact you on matters that predominantly fall under the jurisdiction of the local authority.  This can be anything ranging from questions and problems with housing, housing benefit and rent, council tax, to planning matters, parking, social services and so on.  It’s your job to find out from the Chief Executive how best they want to receive contact from the MP; should correspondence on behalf of constituents be sent to the Chief Executive or to the relevant departmental heads; is email or post preferred, etc?  Also if you can, try and work out some sort of agreement (in posh terms: Service Level Agreement – SLA) on the timescale within which the local authority will respond to your Member.
  5. Find out who the contacts are for other key local stakeholders.
    As well as the local authority, there will be a number of bodies you will come into contact with on a regular basis.  These will include the Chief Constable of the police force within your constituency, Head Teachers, Fire Chief, heads of faith groups, Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Advice Bureau, other voluntary groups and business leaders, especially the Managing Directors of large companies.

You will probably not need to visit all of these, but you should know their contact details and you could usefully email them all with your details, so they know how to get in touch quickly.

 

Day 3 – dealing with constituents

If you have managed to get to Day 3 of your first week working for an MP without having an angry constituent banging on your door because something somewhere in the world has gone wrong, you’ve done pretty well!

How you decide to deal with constituents coming to your door, on an ad hoc basis, without a prior appointment, is something you will quickly have to work out a clear protocol for.  Your Member may well have views, and you need to talk with them for advice.

My first advice is quite straightforward and simple, but very important: don’t let anyone into the office who is clearly very agitated if you are on your own.

If you work out a protocol where you are going to accept members of the public into the office, on an ad hoc basis, arrange for a notice to be put at the front of your building, with the opening hours that are available.  You may work from 7.45am until 4.30pm for example, but the public may be allowed in between 9.30am and 3.30pm.  On any notice you could also usefully inform people that they should, wherever possible, bring supporting documentary evidence and a covering letter addressed to the Member, authorising the MP to make enquiries on behalf of the constituent. This is very important as it is required for data protection purposes. See our page on Standard Letters and Forms.

It is worth pointing out that all members of the public who come to the office during the week whilst the MP is in Westminster will not necessarily want to have a moan.  Some may want help and advice because their social security benefits appear wrong or confusing; or they may wish to make the Member aware of something that is happening in the local community.  Remember to be the ears and eyes for your Member – a good listening ear plus lots of patience is what’s needed!

Constituents may have had a case history with the retiring Member.  The general guidance for retiring Members (which may or may not have been followed) was that all closed cases should be destroyed, and all open cases should be reviewed on a case by case basis, considering the expectations of the constituents about what would be done with their file, and consulting with them where their views are not clear. Options that might have been offered include:

  • Destroying the case-file
  • Passing the case-file to the new Member
  • Passing the case-file to the constituent themselves

If you have inherited any case files from the previous Member, you should be aware that it is understood that Government Departments are advised not to forward information about constituency cases which an old Member was dealing with to a new Member without the constituent’s explicit permission.  See the Freedom of Information and Data Protection issues for more information.

From time to time, very difficult – and occasionally threatening – people will visit your office and/or surgeries.  If you are setting up a new office, or adapting an existing one, do seek advice on security measures, including getting advice and support from local Police.  Do this early on and discuss installing a panic button as well as checking what resources are available for security measures.  Now that IPSA are responsible for administering expenses you need to look at their website (www.parliamentarystandards.org.uk/).  You can find further information on security in Section 5 of the The Guide to MPs’ Business Costs and Expenses

There is a course, Dealing with Challenging Behaviour, which is tailored for MPs’ staff; more information at www.w4mp.org/html/personnel/training/default.asp.  We recommend you go on it.

 

Day 4 – stationery and standard letters/forms

By day 4 you might actually be able to get down to some written work!  In the Constituency Office no two days are ever the same.  Whether it is casework, doing research for your Member or writing a speech, you will need the relevant stationery.  House of Commons Stationery is supplied both to the Westminster Office and Constituency Office.   Details of how to order HOC stationery can be found by visiting the parliamentary intranet page  (http://intranet.parliament.uk/computers-equipment/equipment-supplies/stat/commons-stationery/).  Telephone enquiries can be made to 0207 219 3080.  The stationery firm issues us with unique user IDs, so that we can order stationery online.  This can be set up very simply, by getting the Member to email them with the staff details.

When writing to anyone on House of Commons paper, remember the very symbol at the top is of significant importance.  Some organisations can turn white and go apoplectic on receipt of a letter with a House of Commons Crest at the top.  It is therefore very important to ensure that all letters that go out in the name of a Member are thoroughly checked for spelling and grammar.  Remember, too, that you may be sending other important documents with the covering letter from the Member, so don’t forget to include everything!

You will find that quite a bit of your work becomes repetitive and it’s useful to have some standard letters and forms handy so you don’t have to keep on reinventing them.  We have put together a few of these and you can view them all on our page on Standard Letters and Forms.  These include:

  • some standard letters connected with handling casework (you’ll be using them a lot) as well as forms for collecting information in connection with immigration and asylum casework. The volume of this category of casework varies enormously from constituency to constituency.
  • a few forms and letters you’ll need when arranging for constituents to tour the Palace of Westminster, visit Big Ben or sit in the Commons Gallery
  • a guide on opening the post which includes information about suspect packages
  • a number of helpful templates in the booklet Advice for Members and their staff – Data Protection Act 1998 – Personal information about constituents and othersfrom page 25 onwards.   Many of these have been ‘borrowed’ from W4MP and adopted officially, so it’s good to see our work is not in vain! It’s worth spending some time reading through these so you get a clear idea of your legal responsibilities in relation to the DPA 1998.

Apart from the official forms used by departments of the House of Commons and others, feel free to adapt these letters and forms to suit your own purposes.  Our suggested examples aren’t meant to be prescriptive – just helpful hints on the items you are likely to find useful.

 

Day 5 – an agenda for the boss

By the end of your first week your boss is likely to be back in the constituency.  Probably the most important thing during the week is your meeting with him/her, and you may want to discuss the following:

  1. What is the protocol for writing letters?
    Do you draft them for your Member to see, or are they happy for you to scan in an electronic signature and you to send letters off?  If it’s the latter, it will be useful for you to send each week to your Member a copy of each of the letters you have written so they know what ‘they’ have written to constituents about!
  2. How does your Member want to deal with individual casework?
    Do they want to do it, or is it specifically allocated to you? Probably the latter!
  3. What does your Member want to do about referring casework on local council matters to local councillors?
    Some Members will want you to contact the Council direct and copy the local councillor in on the correspondence.  Others will want you to refer council casework to the local councillor – always check with your Member what protocol they want to follow.
  4. Sort out a system for receiving and recording petty cash from your Member.
    You will need a certain amount of petty cash for day to day running of the office.
  5. Work out what the arrangements are for local surgeries and how frequent they are.
    Your Member may want you to attend the surgeries too to take notes.  One of your key tasks may well be to arrange the surgeries, book venues, arrange for constituents to attend, advertise the availabilities of surgeries etc.
  6. Does your Member wish to send out 18th birthday cards to youngsters in the constituency?
    If so check the rules on the Parliamentary intranet (http://intranet.parliament.uk/intranet/equipment-supplies/assets/office-Stationery.pdf) on what is and not allowed to be done via House of Commons stationery.
  7. Talk about visiting the Westminster Office…..
    ……to get an idea of the work that is carried out there and invite the Westminster staff to visit you.
  8. Make sure you have your contract of employment.
    Check it is signed and that both you and your Member have a copy. See our guide on Staff Rights.
  9. Talk with your Member about what core times they expect you to be in the office during the week.
    You may well wish to keep a record of your hours worked.  Ensure your Member provides the office with the relevant insurance in respect of public liability and data protection (these certificates need to be displayed in the office).

By the time you get to 4pm on Friday – you will not believe just how quickly the week has gone!

 

Day 6 – the diary, constituency casework toolkit, data protection

OK, you survived your first week. Well done! Lots more good stuff to follow in Week Two. We are not suggesting that it all happens in this order.  Think of our Week Two items as a useful checklist which you need to work through.

Managing the MP’s Diary
Undoubtedly one of the most important tasks you may be required to do, so it’s well worth getting a clear and reliable system in place early on.  That large pile if invitations you have already received is evidence that your boss is in big demand and there will be many conflicting diary appointments to try and reconcile. Now it’s time to sort it out and here are some simple tips to help you:

  • Find out early on in your job the sorts of diary requests your Member is not interested in.  You will get scores of invitations each week, from every type of organisation you can think of, and there is no way your Member can get to every one.
  • Plan ahead with regards to constituency surgeries.  Agree the dates with your Member, book the venues and let your constituents know as soon as possible where and when they will be. Think of ways to publicise this information effectively to your local communities.
  • Make sure you liaise with your colleague(s) in the Westminster office (assuming your Member has one) to ensure they are kept aware of your Member’s activities.
  • Work out with other colleagues in the office whether the actual task of managing the Member’s diary is to be a shared task or is to be primarily the responsibility of one person.  You may find that one person is best suited to be responsible for the diary.
  • Members of the public in the Constituency often do not realise that MPs work in Westminster Monday-Thursday and are therefore not available to be seen face to face during this time.  Try to manage people’s expectations, therefore, and, if they definitely need an appointment with your Member, book them in at a surgery appointment promptly.
  • Make sure that for each individual entry you make for your Member on their calendar that not only the time, venue, room number etc is noted, but also key contact details as well.
  • Make use of the “shared calendar” facilities available on the parliamentary computers and network via the Outlook system. PICT – 0207 219 2001 – can explain in further detail how this works.

Commons Library’s Constituency Casework Toolkit
Just because you are based in the constituency doesn’t mean that the Commons Library is out of bounds to you. In preparation for the new 2010 parliament they have put together a new resource JUST FOR YOU! It’s here: http://intranet.parliament.uk/research/constituency-casework. Stacks of useful stuff, including casework guides and pointers to where constituents can find legal help, as well as data on subjects such as unemployment, population and crime in your local area or constituency. Also a useful section entitled ‘Casework in context’. The Library is your friend!

Data Protection
All Constituency Offices must comply with the Data Protection Act 1998.  The first data protection obligation which must be met is registering your office with the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Liaise with your colleagues at Westminster to do this as soon as possible.  A booklet which explains this, as well as two other key data protection obligations and a variety of good office practice suggestions to assist in compliance, can be found through our Freedom of Information and Data Protection Guidance.

 

Day 7 – finances, press cuttings, health and safety

Finances
In some Constituency Offices, staff will deal specifically with finance issues for their particular Member.  Do talk with your Member about the specific guidance and rules. Unless you have been living on a another planet you will already know that, in this new 2010 parliament, responsibilities for finances have shifted from the Commons Resources Department to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and you need to get to grips with the new information a.s.a.p. Go to their website (www.parliamentarystandards.org.uk/) and read all about the New Expenses scheme for MPs.

Press cuttings
It may be a useful exercise to keep press cuttings from the local paper each week to see exactly what is going off “out there in the community”.  See Day 1 for the importance of keeping on top of local issues in the constituency.

Health and Safety
All Constituency Offices should have a first aid kit and should adhere to basic health and safety requirements.  You can contact your local Fire Service for free checks on fire precautions etc.  The local authority can advise on health and safety guidance.

That’s all for today. If you are heaving a sigh of relief that it doesn’t include much, you haven’t spent enough time on the IPSA website!

 

Day 8 – the internet, twitter and facebook, more on computers, working from home

Your Member’s website
This a very important tool that will promote your Member.  Keep it up to date with lots of local information, press releases, your Member’s views on matters of topical national interest, surgery details, blogs etc.

Twitter and Facebook
These can be great ways of promoting your Member and keeping in touch with what’s going on in the political realm.  Lots of Members of Parliament avail themselves of social networking sites.  Do get positive messages across of what your Member is doing. At the same time, don’t forget that not everyone “does the internet”.  Taking the time to write comprehensive responses for your Member to constituents is really important.

For another take on the two items above, have a look at ‘Dean Trench’s’ cautionary guide: Where angels fear to tread – A guide to managing your MP’s new enthusiasm for the internet.

Computers and backing up your work
You may be surprised just how much you rely on fast reliable computers for your work.  All MPs are entitled to an allocation of computer equipment, including faxes and printers for their staff.  Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology (PICT) on 0207 219 2001 will supply all your IT needs and they provide an excellent service. Lots of information is available here: http://intranet.parliament.uk/computers-equipment/computer-services/.  All you need to know about technical help and advice, managing your network account, ordering computer equipment and software, wireless and remote access to the Parliamentary Network, ICT training and Security advice, policies and procedures.

When you are setting up your parliamentary email account, ask your Member, too, for access to your emails remotely.  Essentially, for a fee of £50, you can have what’s affectionately known as a ‘token’, allowing you access to your parliamentary emails and the intranet anywhere.  This is an absolutely invaluable tool and helps you for example when you are working from home.  More information on this is again available from PICT as above.

Do back up your work regularly.  Additionally you may usefully decide to purchase a portable hard drive where you can back up work from the office and take home to store.  You can also make backups to the ‘S’ drive on the Parliamentary server, but beware that transferring the data takes hours and can cause your computer to appear to stop responding.  Backing up onto a CD or DVD is a much less frustrating option.

Working from home
Many Members are flexible and allow their staff to work at home at times if this is necessary, For example if you’ve got a particularly complicated piece of work to do and you need time away from the phone.  Do check with your Member and get their acceptance for this.

 

Day 9 – volunteers, work experience, interns, other MPs’ offices, trade union membership

Volunteers
Probably no Constituency Office would function without the use of volunteer help at some point in the electoral cycle.  You may occasionally get requests from time to time from people wanting to volunteer for different jobs.  At other times you will be asking for help, especially when you are doing a large mail shot and need help stuffing envelopes.  Ensure all volunteers working in the office are familiar with the Health and Safety procedures.  Also do make use of their skills and experience.  Sometimes local party members will quite happily sit in a back room stuffing envelopes and do some routine work to help take pressure off you doing more complex tasks.

Work Experience
At certain times in the year students from universities and local schools may well inundate you with requests to do Work Experience in the Constituency Office.  You have to make a judgement as to whom and how many to take at any one period of time.  Many of these students are well motivated and will provide very useful assistance at certain times.   It can be useful to give them specific isolated tasks and research projects; from my experience they are willing and can produce very good results.

Interns
Most interns who work for MPs are based at Westminster but a few are located in constituency offices. Don’t consider it if you can’t offer an intern a valuable experience.  For detailed advice on internships, have a read through our more comprehensive guides: one on Managing an Intern and the second aimed at interns themselves: Getting the Best Out of Your Internship.

Talk to other MPs’ Constituency Offices
You are not alone in this confusing and complicated new maze and, when struggling to find your way around, you will find a good deal of camaraderie with other MPs’ offices (of the same Party!) within your County or Region.  They will often be able to help and advise on many issues you have to face, and have probably “gone there before” and will happily share experiences with you. It’s a fact of life in a great many constituency offices that life can be somewhat isolated for staff so it’s up to you to set up a network which works for you.

Trade Union membership
Our page ‘Union Membership for MPs’ Staff‘ gives you all of the information you should need to know about Trade Union membership, working for an MP.

 

Day 10 – prioritising your work, weekly report for your MP, W4MP website

Prioritising Day to Day work
This is essentially the most important discipline to master.  For example, the amount of emails alone you can get in any one day can get out of hand if you don’t keep on top of the volume.  I have found it of tremendous benefit to clear all outstanding emails first thing in the day, before the telephone starts ringing, so you (hopefully!) can get a clear start (does not always work out).
Try not to leave difficult letters/cases from constituents on one side for long; they will only come back to bite.  You could, for example, work at home one day to clear some tricky cases whilst one of your colleagues covers the ‘phones in the office.
If you can, get to work early and beat the rush hour traffic.  It’s amazing what work you can get done early in the morning before the telephone starts ringing!
The amount of post you can get from day to day can vary quite a lot.  Providing you are not working alone in the Constituency Office, do share the work load burden with colleagues. Seems simple, but do delegate.

Weekly report for your Member
You may find it useful to write a weekly report on all the activities that you have been involved with, and what’s happening locally in the constituency and send it to your Member every week.  It’s a good source of reference, too, with the myriad of tasks you will be involved with.  Ask your Member whether they would like this.

The W4MP website
Even though we say it ourselves, W4MP is always a really good source of reference for anyone working for a Member of Parliament.  Loads of helpful information and guidance plus the Ask a Question and Feedback facilities as well as somewhere to post a Notice (items for sale, flat hunting, etc), not to mention our famed Jobs page. Mark W4MP as a favourite on your toolbar and….perish the thought…..but, should you think of moving on one day, have a look at our guide ‘Moving On – a guide to life after working for an MP‘.

 

In conclusion….

A pressurised yet enjoyable environment. Working for an MP, you inevitably rub shoulders with a diverse range of people; highly qualified and key players in the local community, local councillors, police, business people, voluntary sector, religious groups and so on.  They all want a piece of your, and your Member’s, time.

You will also come across constituents who are desperate for help with what might seem like very difficult personal and complex cases to resolve. My advice?  Treat everyone equally, irrespective of their status.  Our role is to help make a difference to those who we come in contact with.

There are unlimited opportunities to help individuals, on behalf of your Member, and it really is possible to help and be a positive influence.  You will not solve every problem, but at the end of each week you will have come across many individuals looking to you to make life better for them.  It’s what representative democracy is all about.  Enjoy your work.

 

Need a lighter take on all of this helpful information? Have a look at the version by W4MP’s own wonderful ‘Dean Trench’; it’s in the Alt.Guides section of the W4MP website: www.w4mp.org/html/library/altguide/tendays.asp. It was written a little time ago and it’s all a bit Westminster-centric but that’s how they see themselves up there – jammy lot!

 

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