Navigating government to effect change
From COVID-19 response actions to social justice issues to economic strategies to keep the country moving forward, government is the main show preoccupying our lives right now. Lawmakers at all levels are making decisions that likely will impact every family and business for years and possibly generations to come.
Americans likely have not experienced a time in the last 50 years in which citizen involvement in government has been more important. Many people are not sure how to become more involved in government, or where even to begin. Indeed, getting involved can be confusing. Determining who represents you at the city, school district, county, state, and federal levels of government can be daunting and feel similar to leaping into the deep end of the pool during your first swim lesson. Rest assured, you are not alone. As career government affairs and policy professionals, we would like to share some useful tips we have learned to help you become more comfortable with getting involved with the government process.
Know where to go with your issue
One of the keys to successfully engage with government is knowing where to take your concern. For example, if your issue is about excessive weed growth in your city park or with the speed limit on neighborhood roads, you likely will need to work with your city government. If you are concerned about school safety or classroom instruction, you’ll most likely want to work with your local school board and possibly the state legislature. If you’re concerned about immigration policies in the country, you’ll want to contact someone in the state’s federal delegation. If you have an issue with a Utah state law, contact your state legislator, whose information can be found at https://le.utah.gov. Most government staffers will help you find the right office or person to address your concern. And most elected officials not only welcome, but rely on your input to help inform the decision-making process.
If you’re still uncertain whom to ask, visit the government website in your jurisdiction or the website of the government agency you believe may be responsible for addressing your concern. It is entirely appropriate to pose your question to a staff member listed on the directory. They may not be able to solve your specific issue —the heavy lifting is up to you—but they should know where to direct you and can often provide the contact information of or perhaps even an introductory connection to the elected official who has jurisdiction over your issue.
Show Up: decisions are influenced by those who participate
It is a cliché, but it is true: the cause that receives government funding or approved legislation is often because those who got involved were able to advocate effectively. These individuals do more than copy and paste a form letter and email it to their elected official. They make personalized appeals via email or phone calls and have conversations with their elected officials. Take your case to the government—go to meetings prepared to listen to other ideas and points of view and consider combining your efforts with other groups to find a workable outcome. Elected officials are on social media and many are happy to engage with you via those platforms. Just remember to keep it classy. The post of their kid’s soccer game success might not be the right forum to bring up your concerns about school vouchers, but it can be a place to find common ground and begin a dialogue from a place of mutual interest, such as a soccer fan and booster of youth sports.
Effective advocates come through the front door, meaning they don’t hide why they are engaging with an elected official. They are transparent about their goals and follow established procedures to pass legislation. They give thoughtful feedback to government proposals and don’t disparage those with a different view. These people often see success. They don’t always achieve everything they set out to, but they make progress in their cause and understand it’s important to not let perfect get in the way of a good step forward.
Most elected bodies want to make the correct decision and need data to support recommendations. Anyone can tell a good story, but arguments backed up by science, evidence, and actual impacts are more persuasive. Do your homework and come prepared with as much relevant information as possible.
Include others in your efforts. If your issue is before the city council, don’t be afraid to get your neighbors involved to demonstrate a collective group is seeking change. If your matter is with the state legislature, emails and phone calls may be effective, though we recommend you refrain from calling lawmakers outside of your legislative district. Lawmakers are bombarded with emails and phone calls from anyone and everyone who cares about a certain issue; they cannot respond to everyone, but they always do their best to get back to those who live in their districts.
The key to influencing government decisions affecting you is to be involved. To be most effective with your elected officials during these uncertain times, meaningful engagement is your best strategy. Our elected officials want to hear from you. They want your input and feedback on the major topics that are being addressed. They’ll make a better decision because you took the time to share your thoughts with them. You don’t have to become a full-time activist to get involved—just find a way to have your voice heard.