In contrast to the prestige of working on Parliament Hill, life in a constituency
office takes place far from the media spotlight and away from the power
of high politics. However, these unique and often overlooked institutions
not only help to put a human face on government but have the potential
to address the huge disconnect between Canadian and their politicians.
This article is drawn from information gathered during the course of a
two year research study which included visits to nearly one hundred constituency
offices in all parts of Canada.
It is an unusual feature of contemporary political life that members of
parliament are expected to be in two places at once. Prior to the proliferation
of cheap air travel, an MP could comfortably expect to spend a short winter
session in Ottawa and return to their riding through the spring, summer
and early fall. Parliamentary life was keyed to agricultural cycle. Today,
like the modern election campaign, it's keyed to the capacity of jetliners
to cross time zones and the expectations of citizens to see their MP perform
local duties as evidence that they have not yet lost touch. In this light,
operating a constituency office provides not only a home base; it allows
the MP to maintain a presence and keep the pulse of local affairs.
But few newly elected MPs pause to consider that winning their seat also
entails opening and managing what amounts to a small business. Though they
may keep standard office hours, an MP's staff can be expected to respond
to an urgent request whether day or night. Annual revenues from Ottawa
easily exceed a quarter of a million dollars, necessitating careful bookkeeping
while elaborate rules complicate how the money can be spent. Each office
employs two, three and sometimes four staffers, serves 100,000 citizen-clients
and typically opens well over a thousand new files each year.1 To cope
with demand and keep their personal touch, an increasing number of MPs
in remote and rural-urban ridings choose to open additional branches, as
constituency boundaries shift to absorb several small towns and communities.
Still, in spite of their complexity and growing importance very little
attention has been afforded to the work of these offices. A relatively
recent addition to Canada's parliamentary infrastructure funding was
increased without debate in 1972 permitting all MPs to open local offices
surprisingly little is known about the impact and relevance of what deservedly
can be called 'the root system of parliament'.
Most constituency offices are scruffy, useful, modest places. They are
often tucked away in former medical clinics and legal chambers. There is
no standard template; no government approved floor plan. Constituency offices
come in every size and shape: occupying nondescript corporate buildings,
stuck between pizza shops in strip malls, occupying first floors of homes,
or gamely hanging a shingle in a storefront along Main Street.
In this way, they are connected to but stand apart from the grandeur and
pretense of parliament. They are front-line all interface doing the
messy, remedial business of cleaning up bureaucratic misfires when programs
fail to align neatly with needs of real people and settling local scores.
The staffers themselves divide easily between lifers and flyers: those
who diligently ensure the continuity of operations on the ground and those
young and ambitious junior staffers who see the constituency office as
a short track to a political life in Ottawa.2 The best offices tend to
be staffed by the former citizens are rightfully wary of the latter
and over time a dedicated constituency assistant will become a kind of
public service sage, a general practitioner capable of parsing application
forms and knowing the ins and outs of every department and program, all
the while keeping a finger to the wind of public opinion. Predictably,
this sustained exposure leads to their developing an acute sensitivity
to local need. It's across their desk and over their phones that the most
delicate personal details pass: from the plight of a veteran, to the university
prospects of a recent high school graduate.
Simultaneously the backstop and side door to every government service,
the tremendous public value created by the constituency system goes uncounted
by the planning departments that map out the paths of public service delivery.
And yet, these offices, offering personable, detailed and efficient service,
have plenty to teach the public service about how to earn the trust and
confidence of the citizens they serve.
Moreover, because public service reform and democratic reform can or should
be inextricably bound together, the constituency system deserves to be
studied as a potential site for helping to address Canada's alleged 'democratic
deficit'.3 Successful constituency offices neatly illustrate an adage which
deserves to be taken to heart by anyone genuinely committed to improving
public confidence in government and democratic participation: public service
reform and democratic reform are flip sides of the same civic coin. Together
they constitute a seamless experience of the state that political theorists
and service delivery managers have been too quick to disassociate.
Among Canada's political institutions, constituency offices stand alone
as a kind of local infrastructure for encounter, recognition and engagement,
connecting citizen to representative, and citizen to state during the 1400-odd
days between elections.
Some of the earliest offices, created by enterprising MPs like the young
Ed Broadbent and Flora Macdonald, took their mandate to be exactly this.
They were places to keep in touch, to open up a space for a sustained
conversation about the community's priorities and the intentions of the
federal government.4 It is only more recently as cutbacks diminished the
frontline capacity of federal ministries and citizens themselves became
less deferential in demanding better treatment that the advocacy and assistance
functions of constituency offices grew.
Today, constituency offices attempt to balance seven core functions: to
provide service and assistance in dealing with government departments,
to engage the public, maintain a presence in the community, provide informal
counseling on personal and professional matters, act as brokers and mediators
between interests, collate local opinion, and advocate to each level of
government and their party on matters concerning specific individuals and
But to outline these functions is not to suggest their equivalency. Most
constituency offices are demand-driven and calls for specific services
seriously reduce the amount of staff time that can be dedicated to community
consultation or other activities. For instance, metropolitan ridings routinely
report spending upwards of 85% of their time on immigration files. Rural
ridings assume the role of one-stop shop to government services. Disappointing
turnout at town hall meetings and community discussions do little to encourage
MPs to innovate. Instead, they hone their skills as local fix-its and trust
that their efforts will be rewarded on election day. It is not surprising
that many MPs wish they could spend more time on constituency work: it
is the one place where they truly feel they are making a difference.
The Low Road to Democratic Reform
It remains to be seen whether the new parliament will have much appetite
for meaningful democratic reform. Securing changes to any of the big three
electoral, parliamentary or constitutional reform will require considerable
political capital that the governing party may simply choose not to afford.
These 'high road' reforms may ultimately serve the wider democratic interests
of the country, but less clear is whether reforming the senate, adopting
proportional representation or bringing Quebec into the constitutional
fold will actually produce the revitalization in public confidence and
renewed energy for politics that Canada sorely needs.
By contrast, the 'low road to democratic reform' invites its travelers
along a different path. If electoral systems are to political theorists
what cathedrals and skyscrapers are to architects, then the triplicate
form, the telephone query, and the public meeting are the truck and trade
of the low road thinker. Their concern is the everyday experience of government.
To the low road thinker, genuine engagement and perhaps the rekindling
of a more animated relationship between citizens and their state can only
be achieved through participatory experiences, not simply more accurately
representative assemblies. This means that the trust gap that has widened
within almost every western democracy cannot be wholly addressed through
high road reforms alone. Creating a more representative portrayal of political
opinion in our legislative assemblies is a worthwhile and laudable goal,
but so too is the enrichment of whatever means we have to deepen and sustain
an ongoing political conversation.
The opening of the 39th Parliament and the creation of Service Canada
a federal agency that promises to streamline and improve service delivery
and, perhaps, consequently reduce demand on constituency offices is rare
opportunity to begin reconceptualizing the role and relevance of parliament's
root system. At the very least it offers new and re-elected MPs alike an
occasion to rethink their local operations.
Parliament at the Periphery
All constituency offices necessarily reflect the interests and personality
of their MP. But other than a few posters or professional or honorary certificates,
few MPs take the time to see that their office speaks clearly and positively
about their work and their commitment. Nor do they create a space that
is functionally appropriate. Staffers typically lament not having enough
privacy for sensitive telephone calls. Citizens either feel exposed in
poorly furnished offices or are asked to find a seat in narrow waiting
areas squeezed between filing cabinets.
The varied and conflicting operational roles of a constituency office translate
awkwardly into a spatial plan. Rushed from the campaign trail to Ottawa,
most MPs opt to do little more than rent the first available space that
meets a minimum of criteria. Furniture is either ordered new or inherited
from the defeated incumbent's office and, jumbled together, many offices
never shake the campaign sensibility of stacking chairs, old coffee pots
and poor lighting.
The most successful offices begin with an idea a sense of purpose and
design their space accordingly. Is the office to be a service bureau, a
space for civic engagement, a local incubator for public organizations
and events, a community showcase, a publishing house, a coffee klatch or
meeting point? Is it to be an enclave or an open door?
Implicit in each of these choices is a sensibility about the role of the
MP: her responsibilities, relationship and stature in the community. The
subsequent design choices an MP makes conveys this understanding. Is she
accessible or a step removed? Is her local office a priority or an inconvenient
duty? Does she take a formal or informal approach to dealing with her constituents?
Some MPs go to great lengths to challenge their constituent's expectations.
They remove their desks and opt instead for two or more comfortable chairs.
They insist that people are welcomed into an inviting and well-lit space
and offered either tea or coffee. They hang new works by local artists
and plan well in advance a series of both political and non-political events
that draw people to their space. They furnish boardrooms that local groups
can book and create community and issue boards that detail recent successes
as well as upcoming legislation and events. They attempt to collocate
with their provincial counterpart or a government bureau. In effect, they
try and become a hub in their community and make reaching out to new groups
and individuals a priority.
These MPs are gradually expanding what it means to be an elected representative,
instead conceiving of themselves as something akin to civic entrepreneurs,
who extend and use their offices to generate new ideas and allegiances.
In this way, the most innovative MPs are proving Trudeau's old adage that
'off the Hill, MPs are a bunch of nobodies to be completely wrong. All
MPs, even ministers, know that once they leave the Hill and return to their
constituency, they are once again their own boss. They can again enjoy
the small pleasures and courtesies that accompany a local VIP, with neither
the party whip, nor the leader's office spoiling the day.
In fact, given the discontent that has long simmered along the backbench
of every party, it is not surprising that this frustration is steadily
being translated into new vitality at the local end of parliament. It is
a subtle trend that will continue to grow as MPs make ever-greater use
of communications technology and the media and become more adept and strategic
in pursuing local objectives. It is these innovators who recognize the
constituency office as an important source of legitimacy and ideas that
will most radically change the way parliament works, not from the centre,
but increasingly from the periphery.
Some Tips for New MPs
Choose a location that is accessible, visible and inviting. Remember to
consider bus routes and parking, but also try to encourage walk-in traffic.
Consider whether your office space is sufficiently inviting. Does it make
strangers feel welcome or guarded?
Use your office space to communicate your commitment and progress made.
Invest in good signage that is original, easily visible and appropriate.
Make sure your office has cross-partisan appeal. Avoid party colours.
If possible, co-locate in the same building as your provincial colleague.
Plan a schedule of events, discussions and special occasions throughout
Make sure your staffers feel safe. Do they have good sight lines and a
Ready yourself to be operational from the first day following the election.
Hire experience over politics. The best constituency assistants love people,
problem-solving and know their communities inside and out.
Invest even modestly in custom software packages or databases to help track
queries and files.
Establish advisory councils and convene miniature citizens assemblies regularly.
Create an internship position immediately.
Consider offering your space to community groups for meetings or meetings
between different groups.
1. See Peter MacLeod, The High Cost of Constituency Politics, Globe and
Mail, November 24, 2004.
2. Peter MacLeod. Low Road to Democratic Reform: Constituency Offices,
Public Service Provision and Citizen Engagement. Report to the Democratic
Reform Secretariat, Privy Council Office, Ottawa, 2005.
3. Peter MacLeod. Governance at the periphery, Opinion Canada, January
4. Bea Vongdouangchanh, The Constituency Project, The Hill Times, November