Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And Now for What Citizens Can Do...

I've been writing this week on the recent Pew Study about the fact that most citizens do not trust their government. And, like Sisyphus and his impossible task, I'm having the temerity to suggest improvements. Yesterday I made some suggestions for politicians. Today I have some ideas for citizens.

Know the institution: When I was on the hill we received numerous letters about foreign aid (yes, I know I'm dating myself: for those who don't remember letters they were communications sent on paper through an institution called the U.S. Post Office). The writers were almost uniformly outraged at the huge percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid. In reality, the percentage was ½ of 1%. Granted, these writers probably didn't want any money spent on foreign aid, but under no construction could this be viewed as a "huge percentage of the Federal budget."

Or what about the constituents that I talked to who owned a deli in our district? They were moving their business and wanted our office to arrange to move several federal agency offices so that they would have better foot traffic at lunch. Not really a reasonable ask of a Congressional office.

Clearly these are extreme examples, but what about something simple? The people who used to call our office after a vote to express their extreme frustration with us could have been far more effective if they'd called BEFORE the vote. We still might not have agreed with them, but it's always best to tell Congress what you think before they take action.

From knowing what Congress can actually do for you to knowing your issue, citizens can help enhance trust by knowing what they're talking about.

Know how to advocate effectively: Your communications must be relevant, personalized, thoughtful and specific if you want to have a prayer of being taken seriously. Sure. The Constitution and the general idea of a democracy give you every right to fire off an angry e-mail to every member of Congress you can think of, and if it makes you feel better go ahead. But in a representative system, it's the officials that specifically represent the area where you live or work who really care what you think.

If you want to advocate in support of an appropriation for a specific program, your best place to start is with the elected official who represents the area where you live, work or serve people. If that person happens to serve on the appropriations committee great, if not, it's still best to communicate with your own legislator and ask him or her to reach out to the appropriators. If you aren't sure who they are, go to to find out.

Once you've gotten passed the relevancy hurdle, you need to think about how your communication can rise to the top of the thousands that are received in a Congressional office everyday. You do that by being specific about what you want, being thoughtful in your arguments and, most important, by telling a personal story. Personalized communications have far more influence with a legislator than form communications. Period.

Understand the difference between "being heard" and "being agreed with": In many cases the problem is not that your opinion isn't heard. Rather, it's that either a) the legislator doesn't really agree with you or b) the legislator doesn't have an opinion on your issue. So yelling louder probably isn't going to be effective.

If they don't agree with you, you might be able to turn things around. See if there are some "baby steps" you can take to help them understand the issue better and, perhaps, change their mind. These might include srranging site visits or attending townhall meetings. If that doesn't work, it's time, on your end, to decide whether this is a deal breaker and vote accordingly in the next election.

If it's simply that they don't have an opinion yet, targeted follow-up that addresses the legislator's concerns and connects the issue to the people he or she represents will be more effective than more yelling.

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