The Chief Whip’ s office calls. Where is your boss? S/he has missed his appointment, and frankly it doesn’t look good for her/him. Can you pass on a message that s/he is officially in disgrace and can expect demotion at the earliest opportunity?
Let’s face it. None of us came into politics to fiddle around with the diary.
But the diary must be managed properly. If you do it right and never make a mistake, no-one will ever notice or thank you – but if you make a mistake it could end up causing total chaos, mortal offence or even career implosion for both you and your boss.
So, here is a whistle-stop tour through seamless diary management to help you run a zen-like diary and achieve seamless organisation with minimal chaos.
1. BASIC PRINCIPLES:
1.1 Single point of control.
There must be ONE PLACE, electronic or on paper, where ALL the appointments are noted. Nothing must EVER be written down elsewhere, or chaos will ensue. You may have a system where the constituency office have a separate system to the Westminster one, but in that case the diaries must be clear on when the MP is in each place and which diary is ‘live’. Now that we have Office 365, and the Outlook Calendar can be accessed from any computer, or from the Member’s phone or tablet, there really is no excuse for anyone not to know what is in the diary nor should there be any need to duplicate the diary anywhere else.
1.2 Knowledge is everything.
The best diaries will have all the information needed to hand in advance, somewhere easily accessible.
1.3 MP engagement.
The contents of the diary must somehow be transferred to the MP. He or she must know where they have to be, when, and why.
NB: engaging your MP does NOT mean allowing them to manage the diary themselves. If your MP manages their own diary, wrest it from their hands. No MPs should be running their own diary as they should be getting on and doing the job of being an MP. Yet, some MPs still try to organise their own time for fear of the consequences if the diary is mismanaged. The solution – don’t mismanage the diary.
Allowing them to manage the diary also means that you will end up with appointments entitled simply “meeting” or “tea” entered into the diary, whose details you will be expected to mind-read 5 minutes before they are due to take place.
2. DIARY MANAGEMENT STEP BY STEP:
2.1 Selecting diary appointments.
On the average day, you may receive dozens of invitations for your MP and, even if they wanted to, they can’t go to them all. It is up to them what they do go to, but the basic principle is that there should be a real reason for each appointment. Otherwise, they will never get anything else done.
Some MPs like to look at them all personally, some prefer you to screen out the obviously irrelevant ones.
If they like to look at all of them, you will need some system to make sure they keep on top of them, otherwise the pile will grow and grow, and eventually bury you all alive. At the least, put the important invitations at the top or present them separately so that nothing important gets missed or left too late.
2.2 Responding to diary appointments.
Once your MP has indicated that s/he hopes to attend an appointment, or set up a meeting, you will need to RSVP.
You may wish to give a definite response or, for larger receptions or gatherings, it may be prudent simply to say that the MP “hopes to attend”, for flexibility.
This is also a good opportunity to clarify exactly what the nature of the event is and what will be expected of your MP – is it a round-table discussion which they will need to prepare for? Will there be a photo opportunity to which the MP may want to take their own camera? Will they be asked to speak? In line with the principle of ‘Knowledge is Everything’, find out exactly what the nature of the event is now to save time later.
If you originally discussed the engagement over the phone, send a follow-up email to get things in writing. Sending your MP to something with no written instructions can be risky and you will have nothing to fall back on if you have any problems.
2.3 Declining invitations
Clearly, for constituency invitations, you will almost always want to contact the organisation to give apologies if the MP can’t attend, and the situation is the same for particularly relevant organisations e.g. that your MP has worked with in the past or otherwise has links with.
However, realistically, you may decide that it is not the best use of staff time to respond to hundreds of invitations a week, especially those which have been sent (spammed) to every single MP and clearly have no bearing on your MP’s work. Some offices do respond to everything and that’s great, but it’s also OK not to.
If you do RSVP to all your declined invitations, it may be helpful to make a note on the invitation (e.g. “emailed 14/02/2012”) and file those, so that you know it’s been done. If you don’t, rest assured that most organisations who really want your MP to attend for a specific reason, will chase the invitation up by phone.
Some offices also like to keep declined invitations in a short-term file, with the date and how it was refused. This can be useful if the organisers insist you didn’t RSVP or in case the MP changes their mind about going to something or just has a free afternoon and wants a choice of activities!
2.4 Declining an open-ended invitation
It is often very difficult to decline an invitation that has no date – “Please can you meet with us at your convenience”. You can always cite a very busy schedule in the coming months but under those circumstances, they are likely to repeat the request periodically. Wherever possible, try to be frank about the reasons for declining and encourage the organiser to make a representation in writing instead. Useful lines I have used are…
- “My MP would like to have met you but he is forced to prioritise issues that affect his constituency more directly”
- “It’s not going to be possible to have a meeting because last time he met you, your press release to the local papers completely misrepresented his views. Under these circumstances, it might be better to write to him about your concerns”.
- Sometimes you just have to tell people something they don’t want to hear.
2.5 Recording appointments
Many Researchers will agree that the fail-safe approach is to enter everything in the diary – from Select Committee meetings to haircuts. This ensures double booking is less likely, especially if you share control of the diary with staff in the constituency.
This also includes details of the whip: make sure you include each day’s votes in the diary (and how they have been whipped) so you don’t agree to anything that will clash and get your MP in trouble. When your party’s weekly Whip arrives, enter this information in the diary ASAP.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to note the day’s debates and Questions, so that you / your MP can avoid scheduling anything that would prevent him / her attending.
When you are making a note of the appointment, always ask yourself:
- Is there enough information there for me, OR one of my colleagues with no prior knowledge, to give the MP all the information they need on the day?
- Do I have the information to get hold of the appropriate person if there is a sudden change of plan or a problem?
Often, a good way to fulfil these requirements is to attach any emails that were sent about the appointment, and any other relevant documents (e.g. maps) to your appointment in Outlook, if you use it. Alternatively, a hard-copy diary file subdivided by day, that you rotate to the ‘live’ month works equally well. A summary sheet, detailing the salient points, such as whom they are meeting, when, where and what is expected of them, can also be useful. Put the summary sheet in a plastic pocket, together with copies of any correspondence in relation to the appointment. The Member can then take this hard copy with them on the day.
The most important points are that you have:
- A MOBILE PHONE NUMBER for the key contact. Every single time. If you do not have this, then if something urgent arises after that person has left their office / home to travel to the meeting, you will be unable to let them know. If you are meeting them in a busy place and don’t know what they look like, you could end up missing them. For internal appointments, an extension number will do.
- PERSON DETAILS A note on exactly who is the key contact, who will be in the group, and (if appropriate), what their job titles are. For visiting constituents, it’s a good idea to give your boss their address so s/he knows what part of the patch they are from, and brief them on any issues they have been in touch on in the past.
- LOCATION / ADDRESS / DIRECTIONS This seems obvious, but make sure you nail it down early. If the MP is visiting a supermarket, where exactly do they need to announce themselves? Do they need a post-code for the sat-nav? Is there parking available?
2.6 Achieving your appointments
As with the key principle of MP Engagement, none of the above matters if the MP doesn’t know about the appointment, or forgets about it.
Therefore, whether you have regular diary meetings, give the MP a print-out of the Outlook diary daily or weekly, or even teach them how to use an iPhone, iPad or blackberry. NEVER just assume that they will have checked themselves. Some staff give their Member a phone call each evening to run through the next day’s diary. It might even be worth sending them a text message the day before, and then an hour before their appointment.
Good luck – may your MP never miss an appointment again!