This op-ed originally appeared in the Deseret News.
Cracking open an egg and finding a double-yolk inside. Correctly guessing a four-digit pin number. Getting struck by lightning.
These are all events more likely to happen than the average person being able to meaningfully communicate a concern or idea with their representatives in the United States Congress.
If this sounds like too much of an exaggeration, consider that a single member of the U.S. House of Representatives today represents about 700,000 people. Further consider their time constraints, the amount of media attention they receive and a host of other practical factors, and one thing becomes clear — it is difficult for the average person to have influence at the national level.
At the state level, the chances at making an impact are considerably better, but you do have to be strategic. For example, here in Utah, the 45-day legislative session moves at a frenetic pace. If you ask your representatives, they will tell you how full their email inbox is, how inundated their cellphone gets, and how difficult it is to find the time to meet or speak with constituents during the session.
Wanting to make a difference but hitting practical roadblocks can be frustrating. However, there areplaces where it is comparatively easy to have influence:
- Your city or town council.
- Your county commission or council.
- Your school board.
- Your water (or other) special district.
Yes, I’m talking about your local governments — the place where officials aren’t just deciding on what to name the next city park. In fact, these officials are setting policies that impact home prices, influence whether businesses want to locate in your town, shape budget priorities, and quite literally affect our backyards.
To understand how easy it would be to start engaging on an issue you care about, consider the following:
If you were to visit your city’s website to look up your council member’s information, a contact phone number and email address is likely available. Furthermore, if you called their number, there is a high chance it’s the council member’s personal cellphone — and they will simply pick up the phone and greet you. There’s no team of overworked staffers and no automated system asking you to press one to speak to a representative. It is such a stark contrast to dealing with the government at the federal level that the directness can be startling.
In addition — assuming you are friendly and reasonable in your approach — your council member is likely to welcome an in-person meeting to discuss your issue in detail. Chances are, you are one of a small handful of constituents who have reached out to them in the past month or two.
In short, your local officials don’t suffer from constituent over engagement. If anything, they suffer from under engagement and likely have the capacity to take genuine interest in your concerns or ideas.
That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties when engaging in local politics. For example, it will take some effort to learn things like the relationship between your city’s planning commission and council, what authority your county commissioner does (and doesn’t) have, and what a “general plan” or “board of adjustment” even is.
Beyond this, while your official may be sympathetic to your idea, they may understand that the rest of the council or commission would be opposed. There are also procedural and regulatory obstacles to overcome, and your officials may not be able to take up and address your issue in a helpful time frame.
Despite the potential complications when dealing with local government, when compared to Washington, D.C., your ability to have influence couldn’t be more different. Your representatives’ offices are not thousands of miles away, and you won’t be stopped at the proverbial (or literal) door.
So, the next time you feel that sense of futility or pessimism as you follow what is happening in Washington, D.C., consider taking a break and giving your own backyard a try.