Surviving your first week in the constituency office

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Introduction

I still remember my first day vividly.  I arrived at the constituency office bang on 9 o’clock, and was greeted by a local councillor.  He told me that he acted as the caretaker for the building and gave me a set of keys. He showed me upstairs to my office, and then said he had to go, and wished me luck.

So there I was, standing in my best suit, alone in the building, looking at my new surroundings.  In my previous job, I had worked in a nice, air-conditioned office with lots of windows, lots of desks and lots of people. Now I was standing alone in a small, dimly-lit room which contained an old desk, a wonky orange plastic chair, a filing cabinet with a drawer missing, and a telephone.  The tiny window had bars on it, and overlooked a car park. That was it. No computer, no nothing.  As I stood there looking around, I thought “What an earth have I done?”  This shabby room with its worn, second-hand carpet and broken furniture was not at all what I had imagined an MPs office to be like.

I think that this is something that surprises many people.  Most MPs are not rich and do not have expensive and plush constituency offices.  The office cost budget is always stretched, and MPs are keen to get the best deals possible on rent, which might mean sacrificing some of the luxuries you might find in city centre offices.  Some MPs are lucky enough to inherit furniture from their predecessors, whilst others might buy second-hand furniture.  Fortunately, nowadays, there is a ‘startup supplement’ to help to set up a new office for a new MP, which should cover all of the basic necessities.

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.  No two working days are ever the same.  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!

Enjoy your work and I hope that this simple guide assists you in your first few weeks.

Meet Your Team

Most MPs, but not all, have both a constituency office and a Westminster office, and the work carried out in the two offices can be very different.  If your Member has a Westminster office, find out exactly what work they undertake, what hours they work (they might work later in the day in order to be there when the House is sitting), the preferred method of contact, e.g. telephone, email, Teams, WhatsApp.  You may find, for example, that the 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-focused, organise surgeries, liaise with the respective political party organisation and local stakeholders (i.e. local authorities, schools, citizens advice bureau, charities, pressure groups, etc).  When possible, try to organise a visit to the Westminster office and 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.  Book yourself onto an official guided tour.  In the meantime, you can undertake an online tour of the building by looking at the Virtual Tours page: https://ukparliament.seetickets.com/tour/guided-online-tour-of-the-palace-of-westminster

Security Clearance

Your MP or office manager should have sorted out your security clearance before your start date.  If this hasn’t been done, then this is your most important and urgent task.  Without it, you will not be able to access any of the Parliamentary computers or the Parliamentary network, which will seriously hamper your ability to work – almost everything is done online.  Depending on the workload of the Pass Office, clearance can take anything from a couple of weeks, to a couple of months – obviously, they will be much busier just after a General Election.  When your security clearance has been granted, the Pass Office will email your security number to your MP.  Please treat this number as you would your PIN for your credit card – keep it somewhere secure where only you can access it.

If you are working in Westminster your security clearance must be granted before you begin work on the Parliamentary Estate.  It is not permitted for staff to use a visitor pass.  You can read more about security clearance here: http://www.w4mp.org/jobs-listings-events/jobs/members-staff-security-verification-questionnaire/

Parliamentary Network Account

As soon as your security clearance has been granted, your office manager or MP should apply for an account on the Parliamentary Network for you.  If this hasn’t been done, please ask them to do it as soon as possible; they will need your security clearance number, and they will need to tell Parliamentary Digital Services whether you are to have access to the members mailbox and/or a shared office mailbox if they have one.  It usually takes around 24 hours for your access to be set up.

The first time you log into a computer, you will be asked to change your password, and then you will have to wait a few minutes for the computer to set up your profile.  This is a good time to go and make a cup of tea.

Contract of Employment

Your MP should have drawn up a contract of employment, which should be signed by both the MP and you.  This contract must be sent to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), along with a New Starter Form as soon as possible – you won’t get paid if IPSA doesn’t have these forms.  See the IPSA website for further information: https://www.ipsaonline.org.uk/guidance/new-starters.

Your working hours

You should agree with the MP what hours you will work.  Some offices have split starting times, where one member of staff might work 8am to 4pm, another might work 10am to 6pm.  In Westminster, some staff might work from 12pm to 8pm, or vary their times to match those of when the House is sitting.  Most MPs are very flexible on start times, but do expect the constituency office to have cover during core hours, for example between 10am and 2pm.  MPs’ staffing budgets are very tight, and it is common for Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) to be given instead of overtime payments, so it is important to keep a record of any overtime worked.  If you are to be paid for your overtime (check with your Member first), you will need to enter this into an overtime form which can be found on the IPSA Business World website.  Your office manager or MP will show you where to find this, or you can ask IPSA.

Your surroundings

OK, now you’ve got the most urgent bits done, it’s time for someone to show you around.  If they don’t offer – ask!  At the very least, you need to know where the toilets are.  Don’t feel embarrassed to ask if nobody volunteers this information, it’s probably the most important thing you need to know today.  What facilities are at your disposal?  Is there a kitchen?  Is there a kitty for buying tea/coffee/milk etc. or do you provide your own?  Whilst some constituency offices are in town centres, where there are plenty of places to buy lunch, some people prefer to bring something with them, whether it be sandwiches or something they can cook or heat up at the office.  How does the burglar alarm and entry system work?  Where are the exits?  What is the fire safety plan? Where is the fire-fighting equipment, and will you be trained to use it?

Although most constituents communicate by email these days, you will still receive some letters by post and will need to send letters to constituents.  Therefore you need to find out where the nearest post box is or, more importantly, the post box which has the latest collection time.  If your nearest postbox is emptied at nine in the morning, that might not be the best one to use.  Some older postboxes have quite small apertures, so if you need to post something large, you may need to find your nearest parcel post box.

Telephones

Someone should show you how to use the telephone.  Now this might sound like something really obvious – everyone knows how to use a telephone, right?  Well not necessarily.  Some offices will just have a simple phone where you pick up and dial; some might require you to dial nine for an outside line, but others might have more complicated systems.  What is the protocol for answering the telephone?  Does everyone pick up the phones when they ring, is it on a rota, or is one person designated as ‘receptionist’?  Is there a particular wording they would like you to use when you answer the phone?  Some people like to keep it short and say “Hello, Fred Bloggs MPs office, how may I help you?” whereas some have really unwieldy greetings “Good morning, you have reached the office of Fred Bloggs MP, my name is Jane Smith, how may I help you?” – by which time the constituent has already tried to talk over you three times.  Do you have an old-fashioned answerphone, or do you have electronic voicemail?  You can use Microsoft Teams on your computer or mobile devices to make voice or video calls to anyone on the Parliamentary Network, which will help to keep your phone bills down.  Some people might also have an assigned Teams telephone number, which allows them to make and receive external calls on their computer.

Use a notebook!  Post-it notes get everywhere, and easily get lost, so keep a notebook on your desk, and use it to take notes from phone calls, conversations with constituents, instructions from the MP, et cetera.  Start a new page every day and write the date at the top.  Just something as simple as this can help you to focus your mind for the day, and will also help you to find things when you need to look back at them.  It is not uncommon for a constituent to complain that they called you three weeks ago and you haven’t done anything with their case, yet when you check back in your book, it was actually five days ago.

Newspapers and Magazines

Does your office have a subscription to a local newspaper, either in hard copy or digital?  If digital, can you have access?  Bear in mind that whilst most newspapers have websites, not all of the articles on the website appear in the hard copy, and not all of the articles which appear in hard copy will appear on the website, so it’s important that you have access to both in order to keep an eye on any items which will be of interest to the MP or the constituency.  Some digital subscriptions will allow you to print or save pages as PDF files, which you can store in your shared drive, for future reference.

If your role will involve liaising with the local press, you should introduce yourself to the local journalists.  Some journalists like to speak to you personally about every issue, whereas others prefer to communicate by email, so perhaps you could arrange to meet to discuss how you can best work with each other.

Your MP may also have subscriptions to various magazines.  Some magazines send hard copies to MPs automatically, but you may have to pay for some subscriptions.  You can also access some magazines and journals through the Commons Library intranet pages.  Always check to see if the Commons Library already has a subscription before committing to pay for one.  You can also access Nexis news from the Commons Library intranet pages, which allows you to search newspapers from all over the world.  The results are shown in text only format, rather than looking like a page from the newspaper.

Induction and Training

The Members’ Services Team (MST) holds frequent online induction sessions for new staff, and w4mp strongly recommends that all new staff join one of these sessions as soon as possible.  MST should contact you shortly after you start your employment, but you can also contact them directly to ask to be registered on a session – just email mst@parliament.uk

The Learning and Development Group provides a wealth of relevant, high-quality training, free of charge.  You can access the learning portal via the ACT icon on your computer desktop, and from there you can view all of the available courses, and book online.  Your line manager will be notified when you book each course, and you will receive confirmation and a calendar invitation by email.

It is important that you do the Fire, Safety, Security and Behaviour Code for Members & Members’ Staff training first.  w4mp encourages you to sign up for as many courses relevant to your job as you can, but don’t overwhelm yourself.  These training sessions take place during the working day, and you will need to fit your work around them, so whilst it’s tempting to try to do several courses in a week, this is really not a good idea as you will end up with a backlog of work.

Many courses are available online, but if you have to travel to attend any face-to-face training, the cost of the travel will be covered by IPSA.  You can book via the Travel Office, via Trainline Business, or you can buy the tickets yourself and claim for reimbursement.

The Commons Library and some House of Commons offices also offer training, and there are external providers too.  You can find out more information about training here: http://www.w4mp.org/training/

Your Local Authority

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, libraries and so on.

Every Local Authority has a different preferred method of contact with the MP’s office.  In some areas, the MP will email everything to the Chief Executive or Town Clerk, regardless of whether it is casework, policy or other local issues.  In other areas, the MP might email individual council departments or officers responsible for the different issues.  Some councils have a very useful web submission form which directs the matter to the correct department, ensuring that you provide all the required information whilst, at the same time, providing a tracking system which ensures that your correspondence receives a timely response.  Please do check to find out their preferred method of contact – you may be slowing down the response time if you are not contacting via the correct route.

The Police

Your MP should already have a good working relationship with the local Chief Superintendent, and you should seek to foster a good relationship with their Personal Assistant/Staff Officer, as they can be an absolute mine of useful information and save you a lot of work.  If your MP has not yet met the Chief Superintendent, you should arrange a meeting to introduce the MP and yourself.  They will be able to advise you who your initial contact for casework and local issues of concern should be.

It is useful for you to know who your local police contacts are, and some forces have details of the local officers for each area listed on their website. If not, the Chief Superintendent’s PA/Staff Officer will be able to supply you with this information.  Local officers are usually very helpful in updating you about general matters of concern in their areas, and will often be able to discuss some of the specific matters which are brought to your attention by constituents.  It is also a good idea to let the local officers know if you will be holding an advice surgery in their area.

You should also find out who your local ‘Operation Bridger’ contact is, and drop them an email to introduce yourself.  Operation Bridger is a nationwide police protective security operation to enhance the security of Members of Parliament.  For further information about this operation, please contact the Members’ Security Support Service, whose details can be found on the intranet.

Other Key Local Stakeholders

As well as the local authority and the Police, there will be a number of bodies you will come into contact with on a regular basis.  These will include the Fire Service, various health services, head teachers, local faith leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Advice Bureau, charities, other voluntary groups and business leaders.

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

The Diary

Please see our separate guide here: Managing Your MP’s Diary

Dealing with Constituents

If you manage to get to day three of your first week working for an MP without having an angry constituent coming to you because something somewhere in the world has gone wrong, you’ve done pretty well!

How will constituents communicate with you?

There are various methods of communication:

  • email
  • telephone
  • letter
  • advice surgeries
  • appointments at your office
  • cold callers at your office

By far the most common method of communication is by email.  Some MPs receive more than 300 emails a day, many of which are from constituents needing advice or assistance.  Next, comes telephone calls.  Every day is different – some days your phone will not stop ringing, and on other days, it might not ring at all – you never know what you’re going to get.  Before widespread usage of the Internet, MPs used to receive numerous letters each week, but now that most people have email, they might receive only one or two letters a week, or even a month.

Most MPs hold advice surgeries.  Rather than go into detail here, you can read more about them in our guide: Preparing for a Constituency Surgery

Sometimes, a constituent will need to see the MP or their caseworker face-to-face to discuss complex issues, and an appointment at the office might be the most appropriate way to do this.  Set aside a hour to meet them and be mindful of your personal safety.  Never see constituents alone, and don’t let the Member see them alone either.

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 discuss this with them.

Our 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.  Even better, do not let anyone at all into the office if you are on your own.

We would strongly advise MPs’ offices not to have an ‘open door’ policy, where anyone can drop in at any time without an appointment.  Not only is it a safety risk, but also might be an unwelcome interruption to other urgent matters that you are dealing with.  It’s also not fair on people who have booked appointments in advance, to have someone interrupt their meeting.

If however, your Member insists on having an ‘open door’ policy, you should 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 only 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.

Not all members of the public who come to the office during the week whilst the MP is in Westminster will 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!

Dealing with Casework

See our guides to casework here: http://www.w4mp.org/w4mp/w4mp-guides/in-the-constituency/casework-guides/

Stationery

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.  See our guide here: http://www.w4mp.org/w4mp/w4mp-guides/your-office/stationery/

Money

There shouldn’t be any need for staff to purchase items for the office, but on the rare occasions this might happen, you need to know how they will be paid for.  The best way is to ask the MP or their proxy to purchase something on the IPSA payment card as this will mean that no-one is out-of-pocket.  However, if this isn’t possible, then the Member or staff can purchase items and then claim for reimbursement, subject to them being eligible under IPSA’s rules.  Some offices might keep a small amount of petty cash, in which case, you should confirm the protocol for this with the Member.

If you are likely to be nominated as the MP’s proxy for IPSA, it is very important that you familiarise yourself with The Scheme of MPs’ Business Costs & Expenses.  Indeed, even if you are not going to be a proxy, you should read it anyway so that you have an idea of what you can and cannot do.  IPSA offers regular training sessions for proxies and you can find details here: Training & development

Health and Safety

All Constituency Offices should have a first aid kit and should adhere to basic health and safety requirements.  It is a good idea for at least one staff member to have attended a First Aid training course.

You can contact your local Fire Service for free checks on fire precautions etc.  The local authority can advise on health and safety guidance and you will find a huge amount of information on the Parliamentary intranet here: https://intranet.parliament.uk/employment/safety-at-parliament/safety/   Although much of the information on the intranet is related to working in Westminster, there is still some very useful information which can be applied to constituency offices.

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 PCs, laptops, tablets and printers for their staff.  The Parliamentary Digital Service on 0207 219 2001 will supply all your IT needs and they provide an excellent service.

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 can be found here: https://intranet.parliament.uk/computers-equipment/

You should save all your work either on your personal OneDrive, or on your office’s SharePoint drive rather than on your PC’s hard drive.  This will allow you to access it from any location at any time, not just whilst you’re sitting at your desk.  You can sync OneDrive and your SharePoint drive to your computer, so that you can continue working even if you have no Internet connection.  Using the cloud-based options also means that your data is less likely to be lost as a result of hardware failure.

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, or if you need to arrange your day around childcare, for example.  Do check with your Member and get their acceptance for this.  You can read our guides to working from home here:

http://www.w4mp.org/library/researchguides/your-employment-status/working-from-home-a-guide-for-those-who-work-for-an-mp/

and here: http://www.w4mp.org/w4mp/w4mp-guides/support-in-your-job/working-from-home/

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 ‘been 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.  The Members’ Services Team also arranges monthly online drop-in sessions where you can receive updates on information relevant to staff, and also chat with staff from other offices all over the country.  There are WhatsApp groups available for MPs’ staff, and the MST can put you in touch with the appropriate one for your job and political party.

Representation

There are various organisations which provide representation for MPs’ staff, and you can find details of them here: http://www.w4mp.org/w4mp/w4mp-guides/groups-which-staff-can-join/representation/

Other Places to Look

The Members’ Staff Handbook is an essential guide for both Constituency and Westminster staff which includes lots of useful information, as well as listing the responsibilities and rules that you must adhere to.

Getting started guide for new Caseworkers