When is the last time you reached out to, or were contacted by, your local, state, or federal political representatives? Can you even remember a recent time when this has happened?
If the answer is no, it may be time to get moving during the August congressional recess. This month-long recess means many legislators will return to their home districts to hear from those they represent on a local level. The congressional recess offers a lucrative chance for citizens to plan civic engagement initiatives and get their voices heard.
When Congress returns after Labor Day, it'll tackle issues like the budget, health care reform, immigration laws, gun control, and climate change. According to The Washington Post, the congressional recess was once a time for rest, but now lobbying groups are capitalizing on the time to drive their political narratives -- namely, through grassroots initiatives like war rooms, media events, and targeted district organizing. Obama's reelection campaign has even launched "Action August," an effort to take advantage of the congressional recess to drive conversations around key issues in local communities.
The congressional recess doesn't mean two-way communication between citizens and legislators can't occur. Small efforts on the individual and community level can have a big impact. Here are a few ideas for creating a more participatory government during the congressional recess:
1. Follow the issues. This is a major step many Americans feel they don't have time for. Do you know the president's stance on gun control? What about the latest developments in the health care debate? Commit to reading one local or national newspaper per day, or make it simple by aggregating the news on sites you're already checking, like social media. Create a list of your favorite political news feeds on Twitter or "like" your favorite newspapers, local political groups, and public leaders on Facebook. Knowing the issues is the first step to getting involved in creating a change.
2. Meet your legislators. Plenty of Americans are on top on the latest celebrity controversy, but few can identify their city council representatives, county commissioner, or state representative. During the congressional recess, many legislators are still holding public meetings. Check out Accountable Congress to see if any are holding events in your area. Sites like VoteSmart.org have tools that can help you to identify your elected officials -- just punch in your address.
3. Try "blizzarding." One of the suggestions from the Action August initiative is to create fliers or brochures with information on key issues to disperse around your community. All you need is someone to create graphics, a printer, and volunteers. A flyering event with just a handful of participants can draw the attention of local journalists, educate community members, put pressure on legislators, and create great content for social media sharing.
4. Wield the power of the Web. In the past, newspapers were the primary source for government to push out information. Now, mobile devices and the Web allow for immediate interactions between citizens and government. Organize local volunteers who will vow to reach out to lawmakers on social media to share their stance on key issues. Or, consider lobbying your local government to create an easier way to voice your ideas, give feedback and access legislative information, agendas, meeting minutes, and videos via mobile devices. For instance, my company's iLegislate app for the iPad helps put public feedback at the fingertips of government staff and elected officials, serving as a powerful hub to make government more efficient.
5. Plan local volunteer efforts. Consider starting a local or mobile town hall to get your community members thinking about what your representatives are up to. This is a great opportunity to hash out ideas on key issues and determine what strategies you'll use when Congress is back in session. Plan to initiate volunteer events -- one good option is phone bombing your representatives' offices, which is when lots of volunteers call and leave messages with their stance on a key issue or piece of legislation. Or, plan to go door-to-door with petitions when new legislation is introduced.
The congressional recess may seem like a time to be mum on pressing political issues, but it's an important month for ensuring citizens' voices are heard.
What are some other strategies citizens can use to reach out to elected officials?
Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Connect with Tom and the Granicus team on Twitter and LinkedIn.