Final post in my mini-series on connecting with elected officials. This week we focus on the local level.
Every community, town and city is unique, but there’s one universal thing you should keep in mind:
Local is where it matters most.
Local government impacts you literally every day. The water you use, the roads you drive on, the pipework that carries your water and sewer. Yep, pretty much everything.
You may be surprised to realize contacting your local elected officials is the easiest part of the whole “becoming engaged” process. It’s surprising to me, too, because somehow participating at the local level is done the least despite all of our talk about politics and becoming an active citizen.
So what’s a motivated person to do? These 11 (yes – 11) things:
1. Learn who your local elected officials are.
This is so easy to find out. Simply pull up your town or city’s website and navigate to the city government page. There you will learn all about your Mayor, Council, Aldermen, etc. It’s also a great place to discover (if you don’t already know) if you have a mayor/council form of government or a manager/council form of government.
Other elected officials to look up – these will vary based on where you live:
- School board members
- Local college board members
- County judges
- County commissioners
2. Be a learner.
You would be surprised – even shocked, perhaps – if you knew how responsive local government is to residents. Email with a question. Call with a question. Set up a meeting.
Why is this important? Government is not the same as private business – nor should it be. There’s a reason graduate schools offer both MBA (Masters in Business Administration) an MPA (Masters in Public Administration) degrees. Government is complicated and complicated means it feels confusing to the inexperienced. Let me explain.
Government, by its nature, is designed to be inefficient because it considers the whole. It has limited competition (tell me: who else could easily provide your sewer system and traffic lights?) so it has to implement countermeasures to ensure fairness. It operates under the microscope of the law as well as completely different accounting regulations (like, did you know that local government – unlike the federal government – has to balance its budget each year?).
Click here to read a fantastic primer about local government if you want to learn more.
Despite these complications, I’m continually surprised when people make up theories – and share them broadly – to explain issues without ever asking a question first to get information. This happens more and more.
Please don’t be that person.
Oh and one final caution – don’t let others tell you what your opinion on an issue should be. Do your own homework.
Pro tip: Everything is more complicated than you think it should be. If it was easy to solve, it wouldn’t be an issue.
3. Attend meetings.
Meetings are a great way to learn how government works. You also learn what positions people have, gain full context of discussions (rather than soundbites featured afterward) and have a chance to ask questions or share your opinion during the public input portions of the meetings.
Most people show up when they are already upset about an issue – often after a decision has been made. Remember what I said earlier about the inefficiency of government? It often takes multiple meetings – sometimes multiple years – to move something forward.
Yet because government is hardly front-of-mind for any of us until something we don’t like happens (you hit a pothole or a development starts nearby that you hate), we arrive at the table angry and wanting action. Unfortunately, the time for action often was month earlier.
Pro tip: Download the agenda and study it in advance. If you can’t attend, identify where the meeting is broadcast to watch later or read the minutes.
4. Speak up.
As mentioned earlier, you have an opportunity to contribute during meetings during times of public input. Jot an outline of what you want to cover or write your comments out in full. You will typically have a preset amount of time in which to speak, so this helps you stay on point. This strategy also helps you avoid emotion taking control of and overwhelming what you want to communicate.
Pro tip: Don’t blast accusations without starting with dialogue.
5. Read the budget brief and check out the open government links on the website.
I know – budgets are boring. But your local government’s budget brief will give you the best high-level overview of priorities and funding for the coming year.
Local government is subject to open government laws. While a local government’s website may be hard to navigate, you will usually be able to find links to financial information as well as meeting minutes.
Oh and that hard-to-find-anything website? That’s usually the result of too much information, a government-focused (rather than user-focused) site architecture and many hands doing the work…not because anyone is trying to hide information.
6. Start writing.
Email elected officials and share your concerns. Even better – ask questions.
Don’t assume you know everything about an issue when you’ve only experienced one small part of it. For example, if a board recommends action you disagree with, email to find out what the next steps are and what the role of the board is in the overall process.
As issues evolved, you can also write op-ed pieces and/or letters to the editors of your local publications. Share your perspective.
And please don’t start your engagement process with the media. You’re the citizen, be willing to do some legwork and question asking on your own first.
7. Build your tribe.
Find others who feel the same way you do. Work together. Find current elected officials and/or influencers who share your position and ask them to advocate with and for you.
8. Use social media.
Follow your elected officials on social media – you’ll be surprised the information you can learn. While you’re at it, follow your local government as well. It’s a frequently used tool for public information sharing.
Pro tip: Don’t be a social media troll. Respectful dialogue drives action.
9. Sign up.
There are a multitude of ways to get more deeply involved. You can:
Volunteer for a board or commission – Check out your local government’s website to see what options are available. Often these are appointed positions, but you can’t be appointed if you don’t throw your name in the hat. Plus you gain valuable experience which can help your career (if you’re interested in that sort of thing).
Run for office – This takes a bigger commitment, but why not? We all have a stake in our local community.
10. Don’t forget that local government employees are your neighbors.
People who work in local government (those who aren’t elected officials) are often your neighbors. They shop in the same stores as you, they live in your neighbors, their kids go to the same schools – you likely know someone in local government and don’t even realize it.
What does this mean? Be neighborly in your interactions.
Working in local government is called “public service.” And because salaries in government are typically not as high as you’d find in the private sector, these roles attract individuals who like helping others and feel a great pride in where they live and work. Understand this motivation – your city employees are there to serve the public, including you.
And keep in mind they have feelings and emotions, just like you. Because they are just like you. It may seem funny to call government works idiots, jerks who don’t care and morons whose salaries you pay. It’s not funny. It’s mean and you wouldn’t want to have those accusations thrown your way when you’re on the job.
Pro tip: Public “servant” doesn’t mean “slave.” Be kind and respectful in your interactions.
The ultimate form of public expression regarding how government is doing happens at the polls.
Did you know – less than 20% of registered voters typically show up for local elections? That’s a national statistic. In many communities, the voter turnout is far more likely to be less than 10%.
If you don’t vote (and you are a registered voter or are qualified to be a registered voter), you’ve abdicated a fundamental responsibility of citizenship.
Every election includes early voting and election day voting. If you can make a stop at a gas station to fill up or at Starbucks for a coffee, you have time to stop at a polling location to vote.
Pro tip: Those who don’t vote (and who can), shouldn’t complain.
This is the final post in a how-to series for contacted elected officials.
- Post One: How to Contact Your Elected Officials | Federal Edition
- Post Two: How to Contact Your Elected Officials | State Edition