It’s worth thinking about boundaries (for your constituents) and ground rules (for yourself) from the start.
Constituents will contact you with issues that, for them, are urgent and all-consuming. You will be dealing with a bulging inbox and a thousand other duties, and may not be able to give them the time they deserve. Think about how you want to handle this so you can treat your constituents with the courtesy they deserve, while managing their expectations. One thing you might want to do – especially during busy periods – is to set yourself a rule, for example, that you acknowledge all emails within 24 hours (say) with some stock text – perhaps along the lines of: “Thank you for your email. I will be able to reply more fully within the next X days. If you need help more urgently, please consider doing Y or Z.”
The kind of things you might encourage a person to do if they need more urgent help might be ‘contacting one of my colleagues’ (and point them to where they can find all Deputies’ contact details) or ‘getting in touch with the Citizens Advice Bureau’. This doesn’t get you off the hook to help them if you can, it just gives them the information they need to make their own choices – if they know they’re not going to hear from you until next week, say, they can decide whether they’d prefer to wait for you, or to do something different.
You will meet constituents who want you to drop everything and deal with their issue right now. It’s deeply urgent to them, and they voted for you (or they pay their taxes, and therefore your salary!), so they expect you to be available right now. Most constituents are more willing to be patient, but occasionally you’ll have these encounters, and you may simply have to be polite but firm, and weather their disapproval.
As well as managing constituents’ expectations about your time, it’s wise to be clear about what you can and can’t achieve for them. You won’t single-handedly be able to overturn an unfair policy that’s affecting them. You might be prepared to take a lead in organising your fellow Deputies to get it overturned – but even then, it might be more about stopping the same thing from happening to other people in future, rather than protecting the person in front of you right now.
In the same way, you might not be able to get the person the public services that they need, especially if that involves them jumping a queue. But often people miss out on services because they’re not very good at explaining their own situation, or don’t know where to go for help. In those circumstances, you can do a lot. You can offer to accompany people to meetings with service providers. You can tell people about what’s available, and provide them with contact information, and reassure them if they don’t think they’ll be welcome there.
There are some ground rules you need to set for yourself, too. You have responsibilities under the Code of Conduct, to treat your constituents with respect and dignity; and you have data protection duties to do with confidentiality and consent. You should also remember that, much as you want to help people, you are not a counsellor or a social worker or a lawyer – there are times when you will need to say to a constituent, “I think you need to ask a professional about that, I can’t take this any further for you” – and that’s OK.
Finally, you are under no obligation to put yourself in situations where you feel unsafe, nor to take on case work which you know you can’t do justice to. It is OK to say “I’m really sorry, I can’t help right now” or “I’m really sorry, I don’t feel I have the experience to help you resolve that”. And – I’ll come back to this – it’s OK to completely disengage from someone who is threatening or mistreating you, and to ask for help in keeping yourself safe.