The neglected genius of Britain’s letter writers Yorkshire Post 9 May 2008
published in the Yorkshire Post 9 May 2008
I am a man of letters. I do not mean the spurious MA which I purchased from my old university. I mean that I write letters to People in Authority when I have a complaint or a question or a bright idea for them, or when I simply want them to get a Piece of my Mind.
Already this year I have written over a hundred letters of this kind, to politicians, government departments, major businesses and other important organizations. (Yes, I know I should get out more). The best response, in terms of speed and relevance, came from the National Union of Teachers, followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The poorest response, on both counts, came from the Prime Minister’s office, which may explain some of his present ratings in the opinion polls. Many others never replied at all.
I was not in the least surprised. With rare exceptions, most organizations inBritainregard letter-writers as lonely obsessives. Politicians refer to them familiarly as “the green ink brigade.” British businesses and public bodies tend to regard any communication from a customer or taxpayer as a tiresome intrusion into office routine. Such organizations never devote much talent or energy to their customer response units (if possible they outsource them toUlan Bator). The people who answer their letters know that they are on the lowest rung of the ladder to nowhere. Often they are given targets by their managers – get rid of so many letters in a set time, and do not delay matters by reading them or understanding them.
This attitude is totally misguided. Even a glimpse at the letters page of this newspaper will show that letter-writers are brilliant, inventive, expressive people. By letter-writers I mean people who take the trouble to compose their words in writing to form coherent thoughts, whether on paper or in other media, and supply their name and address. I do not mean people who shout anonymously, in texting or blogs or chat rooms.
Far from being lonely, letter-writers are usually highly active in many different networks. They are the kind of people who get asked to organize the street party, or the local charity appeal, or the protest at the local school closure. They are local opinion formers, and politicians and businesses offend them at their peril. Yet they do – constantly and habitually. They fail to reply to letters or even acknowledge them. Worse still, they fob off the letter-writer with some mechanical reply which shows that the letter was never read properly. Politicians and government departments have a bad habit of stuffing their replies with irrelevant information, often preceded with the spurious phrase “It may be helpful if I explain the background to the decision to close Bash Street school/abolish the 10p tax rate/put a nuclear waste dump next door to you.” Such “explanations” usually convince the letter-writer that the respondent is not listening.
This is fatal because letter-writers, more than anything else, want to be heard. When they are not heard they get noisy. They tell their family and friends and neighbours and work colleagues about the rotten (or non-existent) response they received. That could represent ten, twenty, even a hundred votes thrown away by the politician concerned, and the same number of customers thrown away by a business. It is particularly perverse for politicians, who complain constantly about political apathy, to ignore or short-change the dwindling band of people who are still interested enough in politics to write them a letter.
Even if letter-writers had no influence on other people, politicians and businesses should still take letters seriously. They are a source of information, ideas and talent. Organizations currently spend huge sums buying these precious commodities from outside, through market and opinion research, IT and management consultants and all manner of other experts. It is crazy for them to spend all that money and ignore the free discoveries they could make by reading their letters properly.
Almost without exception, a letter has something important to say. If it is a complaint it must be serious because it is unusual in this country to complain about anything (witness our national catchphrase “mustn’t grumble” or the perpetually cowed guests in Fawlty Towers). A compliment is even more serious, because it is even rarer for the British to dish out praise. So it is important for all organizations to know and record and analyse what made customers angry or enthusiastic enough to write to them.
Still more important, organizations should read and analyse carefully any letter which contains a suggestion. The rewards of a good suggestion are limitless (and the proposer deserves to share in them). But a bad suggestion can be almost as rewarding if it prompts the organization to examine its activities and decide whether it really is a bad suggestion, and if so, why.
Britain’s gifted letter-writers are the most neglected resource in the country. They are leaders of modern thought, whose collective genius could transform British politics and British business. They deserve respect, even reverence, from those in authority. I am going to write someone a letter about them.