Saturday, 28 May 2011

Why do we (still) need MPs to write letters?

Of course due to reasons of confidentiality MPs cannot tell us the particular woes of their constituents who come to their MP surgeries (as they are called in the UK). (This is one reason void deck surgeries are not ideal.)

From information gathered in the news, blog post comments and other personal communication, it appears that a sizeable number of queries are to request MPs to write letters to government departments.

In the following link someone wants help with an application to hold a religious event: Aljunied MPs hold first Meet-the-People sessions

Why, I ask myself, does an MP need to be involved in this? It should be a purely bureaucratic decision: The rules are these. If your plan does not fall within these rules, you cannot apply.

Or is the woman in question appealing a decision by whatever government department involved? (1) Is it a standard practice that these decisions are passed back to the MP? (2) Is the MP therefore to act as judge and jury to decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate?

If the answer to (1) is yes, then something is very wrong with the civil service/bureaucracy. Clearly the system is not efficient enough. There are too many grey areas and a comprehensive review of processes and protocols is required.

If the answer is yes to (2), then we are are saying that MPs have the right to dispense patronage. If they feel that they like a constituent for some reason, they can approve ("endorse" was the term I've seen being used) an appeal/application. If, for some reason, the MP does not approve, the contituent has no one else to turn to.

What if the MP writes the letter, but the government department still refuses the appeal? Does this mean that the MP would "lose face"? What is the percentage of MPs' intervention refused by government departments, I wonder. Is there a difference between PAP and opposition MPs' appeals?

If MPs are now writing more letters, according to a Straits Times report (which link I cannot locate as I write), is this because civil servants are not really as efficient as they should be? Then why are they given the bonus we read about here:

Civil service to get half-month payment in July (actually this headline gave me the impression that their regular wages have been docked for poor performance, such is the headline writing skills at Straits Times)

In Singapore where we had a lot of illteracy, constituents had to turn to MPs in the past to write letter. Now after 40 years of good education (so the government claims, but that will be the subject of another post), why are we still having to rely on MPs to write letters?

A response to my previous post tells me:

When the MP writes the letter, the government department considers your appeal differently. If it's a favourable result, the constituent will be indebted to the MP (and hence more likely to vote for him/her). That's the whole point of the system.. unfortunately.

I remember I had to go to my MP to write a letter to HDB for a grant to fix a toilet ceiling leak! Waited for 2 hours to not even see the MP, but some grassroots person, and my letter got lost somehow. Crazy.. HDB could have just given the grant directly without me queueing etc, but they said it's the policy to get the MP to write a letter.. ??

Similarly someone told me that when after all her efforts to write to the relevant department have failed, a letter from her MP did the trick, and so she is now eternally grateful to him.

This suggests to me that our civil service departments and/or statutory boards have designed "built-in inefficiencies" into their protocols so that MPs are seen to be effective. Such an inbuilt pattern of patronage is not befitting a first world parliament.

We pay our MPs quite a lot of money. We should not use them as a secretariat.

I would rather MPs hold more "tea parties" or "focus groups" so that the issues facing constituents can be dealt with BEFORE there is a need to get an MP to write to government department x,y or z.

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