Updated: 17 August 2010
It’s that time of year again for a little pampering from your favourite website.
Here we offer you our updated guide on how to keep sane during the long summer recess. It’s angled principally at staffers based at Westminster but a lot of it will apply just as well in constituency offices. The major difference, of course, is that the boss is likely to be spending more time in the constituency and less – if any – time at Westminster; lucky you!
Remember our old friend ‘Dean Trench’ who so sadly went on to better things earlier this year (see more here)? When you’ve read this ‘sensible’ version – below – have a look at Dean’s alt.guide, Tips and Hints for Recess. Maybe you’re new to W4MP and missed Dean – fear not you can see all his ravings here.
One week into the summer recess and you may find that you are starting to twitch… A lack of urgent deadlines and an empty diary means that motivation starts to slide, and you even start looking forward enthusiastically to the party conference season.
There is no middle ground if you work for an MP in Westminster. One day you are frantically running around to keep up with everything the boss wants to get finished before retreating back to the constituency; and the next day you are all alone in the office with just the filing and the tumbleweed for company.
There are several approaches you could take in response to the yawning chasm that has just opened up before you. OK, it’s shorter this year than it used to be, with the September ‘interruption’. Here are some suggestions for staying pro-active and sane through the long summer months. You may even get desperate enough to give some of them a go!
Take stock and clear your head:
If you have been rushing around since Easter, literally lurching from speech to press release to crisis, then it might really help to sit down and reflect on it all.
What has gone well this year? What could have been better? Have you (and your MP) had any kind of strategy to manage the chaos, or any goals to achieve? Have you actually been enjoying what you have been doing? Do you feel that you are developing your future prospects or has there been nothing in your mind beyond getting through each week?
Then, bearing all this in mind, have a think about what you and your MP would like to achieve in the next year and for the rest of Parliament, and how you will go about doing it.
Why not encourage your boss to take up an issue to campaign on, where he or she can use Parliamentary tools to badger Ministers and become a local (or even national) champion in that area. This could be anything from promoting an issue further up the agenda, campaigning for a minority group to be recognised for something they are doing, or pushing to keep an important local facility from closing.
If you have some goals in mind, it will help you to remain focused and to feel like you are achieving something during the summer lull.
Improve your CV:
Have a think about your next steps. Are you here for the long haul? What do you want to be doing after the next election? Do you have hopes, dreams and ambitions? The summer recess is a good time to think about improving your CV.
A good place to start is to do a training course to boost your skills on anything from website management to office management. Capita Learning and Development have the contract for Parliamentary training and details of their courses can be seen at: www.w4mp.org/html/personnel/training/all_courses.asp. Booking information is here: www.w4mp.org/html/personnel/training/book.asp.
In addition, why not try out some work experience in another area. If you can take a few days off work, then why not look up some old colleagues who are now ‘out in the real world’, and ask if you can shadow them for a day or two to find out whether you are interested in what they are doing. If nothing else, it might show you what you’re not interested in!
Make some space:
If you are looking for something less brain-taxing than overhauling your whole life, why don’t you overhaul the office instead. You will find it deeply satisfying to throw out a whole load of papers that have been filling up your desk space for the last six months; or at least to file them somewhere out of sight.
This will clear your brain as much as it clears the office, and will give you a maximum sense of achievement in return for minimum effort. Highly recommended!
Do some reading:
If some of the paper that has poured into your office is too relevant to simply be thrown away, and is now piled up precariously on your window sill, then take the plunge and start reading through it! Find a comfy spot with a cup of tea, well away from the distractions of email or Facebook, and skim through the executive summaries of the things that look important. Make notes on things to follow up. Then file it!
If your MP shadows a Departmental portfolio, you might also want to look through the relevant Select Committee reports from the last few months. These reports often give a succinct overview of some of the most topical issues, and take evidence from Ministers, civil servants and relevant experts. These could throw up all kinds of issues that you might want to follow up.
Set yourself a project:
Is there anything you have wanted to get stuck into all year, but kept putting off when something more urgent came up? Are you looking for new angles to pursue on your portfolio or local issues?
If you are interested in more investigative research, speak to your MP about a possible area to pursue, and use the internet and the Commons Library to dig a bit deeper. You will have plenty of time to do so.
And remember, you could even contribute to the news agenda (although preferably not in an embarrassing ‘silly season scandal’ kind of way…). Journalists still need to fill their papers at this time of year but because everyone is on holiday, they have much less to put in them than usual (wars and disasters aside). This means that you might get some coverage for your MP commenting on a story or set of statistics that would sink without trace at any other time of year.
Don’t forget to use the Parliamentary tools at your disposal. If you want to get some PQs down have a look at this page of ours on the arrangements for 2010 summer recess and the period following: www.w4mp.org/html/eni/2010q3/20100803_questions.asp.
You can also write letters to Ministers and use the House of Commons Library, as well as the PIMS intranet pages.
Don’t forget that the 2010 summer recess is ‘interrupted’ by the House sitting from 6 to 16 September. Info here.
Take a look around the Intranet
We asked our good friends in the Commons Library for some topical tips and here’s what they suggest. All the links are to intranet sites. W4MP Ed.
There are a lot of resources on the Library’s intranet pages that you can use to find information. You might not have come across these in the normal course of things: the summer recess will be a good time to check them out.
On Factiva you can search for press articles from regional, national and international newspapers, and set up keyword alerts – so that you’re kept up to date with what is going on. There’s also access to a large number of journals and periodicals.
You can get easy access to a range of local area statistics , updated monthly. Dods People provides biographical and other information about Parliament and Government. And if you want contact details, or need to find out about a specific person, there are a number of ways to do so.
There is a constituency casework toolkit with links to help you with those requests that come up time and again. If a constituent is looking for funding for hardship, a business venture, a course, or a local initiative, you could try Grantfinder.
You could even arrange to meet with someone from the Library to help you to understand and make best use of all these electronic sources. You could either book yourself on an introduction to the Library session, where you and other Research Assistants will meet in the Derby Gate Library to be shown the key electronic resources which are available for you to use. Or you could arrange a Navigate appointment, where someone from the Library will come to a location to suit you on the Parliamentary Estate to guide you through using key parliamentary sources. Or you could book yourself on to a conventional training course.
Prepare for Conference:
If your boss is going to your party conference and has been invited to speak at any fringe meetings, he or she will need some background research and / or speech-writing doing beforehand. Be realistic about how much time you will need for this. It is no fun staying until 11pm the night before conference, knowing that you have a whole week of no-sleep ahead of you anyway.
Find out what the sponsoring organisations think about the issues that they have asked your boss to talk about. What is the party line? What does your MP themselves think about the issues? Do they have any local angles they can bring to the debate?
Try to be as organised as possible if you are planning your MP’s conference diary. They will not enjoy trying to speak at 3 fringe meetings simultaneously, especially if they are all in different hotels…
The summer is a good time to take a look at your MP’s website. Take down anything that is horribly out of date. Make sure all the links work, and look at other MPs’ sites for inspiration for new ideas and ways to keep it fresh.
You could even encourage your MP to set up a profile on Facebook if he/she hasn’t already got one. It’s a good way to keep in touch with young constituents, who tend to be pretty impressed that MPs have found their way onto it. Beware though: this is likely to generate more casework, so keep the constituency office in the loop.
Visit the constituency:
Here’s a radical idea! If you don’t usually get involved with the other half of your MP’s job, why don’t you offer to spend a few days working there? It’s a good way to get to know the constituency staff better and gives you a bit of casework experience which you can add to the CV. It will also help you become more familiar with the local towns and villages, and the main issues that concern the people of Pidlington North, which will in turn give you a more rounded view of what your boss has to deal with on a daily basis.
Finally… some quick tips for self-preservation:
Make sure that you set yourself some deadlines so that you do not simply drift from week to week.
Get out of the office and see people. This is especially important if you are on your own all day. Watching daytime TV only goes so far in keeping you sane (in fact, it probably achieves the opposite – see Jenny’s spooky experience here). Make sure you take a proper lunch break and drop in to say hi to others on the corridor, especially those who are also on their own in the office.
Get some variety. Don’t stare at the computer all day. Get a change of scene in your lunch hour: go for a walk in the park, go shopping, or do the tourist thing and visit a nearby attraction (Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery and the London Aquarium are all close by).
Go for a drink at the end of the day and relax a bit more…
And most importantly of all: You want to be rested and refreshed for the start of the autumn term, and the resumption of chaos. So, if you do nothing else on this list, make sure you GO ON HOLIDAY!
JH – August 2008
Need more helpful advice on surviving the recess?
Have a look at our alt.guide Tips and Hints for Recess