The release of MPs expenses is often an occasion to marvel at either the strange, the exorbitant or the minuscule. With the Conservatives publishing the whole MPs expenses for the last three months (see here) as part of the transparency equals trust agenda, it is interesting to see how much MPs spend on communications. This category of spend is sadly most frequently an undefined general amount, so we know that Jonathan Djanogly spent £18 April to June; while David Davies (that's Davies of Monmouthshire) spent £7494.76. The problem is we do not know how that £7000+ is broken down. Other MPs are far more transparent and offer a full breakdown and this is fascinating in terms of their communication priorities and the potential return on investment.
Surprisingly, flicking through the report I estimate at least half spent absolutely nothing on communication, this suggests that either their communication (such as updating or maintaining a website) is free, or it is purely media relations and swallowed within the budget of a staff member. Staff may also be updating the website etc and so there is no extra cost. The major spend is the Westminster Report, the MP's newsletters which vary in frequency (2-4 per year) and in delivery method (TNT, Royal Mail). The average cost for this is £2796.
Websites are the next priority and, for those that have an associated cost, are far cheaper. While it is not defined exactly what the spend is, of the 17 that have a cost associated with the website all but three are below £1000, and seven are below £500. The disparity is interesting, one does wonder why Tony Baldry's website cost £1882.94, though an excellent site it does seem high. This is particularly when contrasted with David Cameron who pays £246.25 to Reaper Enterprises Ltd for his constituency website a separate entity to WebCameron.
For me this is interesting as it displays a shift in priorities to some extent. Interviewing MPs in 2002 as part of a project working for Ralph Negrine, few talked much about websites or constituency newsletters, the majority were concerned about media relations. The Liberal Democrats were alone talking about the Focus newsletter, this seems now to becoming a widespread practice. However the question is on return on investment. Is up to £5000 per quarter or per annum (I did wonder if some of the expenses declared were one-off or yearly payments; some say they are, some are unspecified) a good investment for something that may line a budgie's cage, cat litter tray or go straight into the bin? Well the answer is yes as somewhere in that process the recipient may recognise that their MP has communicated with them, assume this means they are working on their behalf, and so the MP gains an incumbency benefit. Equally, and aside from winning votes, it is a good thing that MPs demonstrate they are acting as representatives. But can websites overtake the newsletter? This would be highly cost effective and perhaps have more impact on that incumbency value. The few MP's websites I looked at are very good, very much about the constituency, but do they have a pull factor that will get a constituent visiting and interacting with the MP?