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WORK for YOU
Two hundred years ago, you wouldn't have needed this book. One hundred years ago, you would have needed three or four paragraphs. Fifty years ago, a couple of chapters would have sufficed.
Today, you need all of it.
The top-down, faceless government of the past is morphing, evolving at high speed into something that's more responsive and potentially more generous, especially to people who learn the secrets of operating in the new system. To make the new government work for you, though, you need to understand two things.
* The trends that are changing it
* The techniques for making government more responsive to your needs
Let's start with the trends.
THE CHANGING FACE OF GOVERNMENT
The founders of the country had a strong belief in a minimalist government after living through the tyranny of the British monarchy. Thomas Jefferson, for example, felt that government should stay out of the way and let the natural workings of society make it prosperous.
"We don't believe that any more," says Gordon S. Wood, Ph.D., professor of history at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Now, government is considered the key to the economy and a major player in nearly every aspect of our lives. "Neither Jefferson nor even Lincoln could have anticipated the kind of government we have now," says Dr. Wood. "This country's first 100 years were spent dismantlingthe government. The next 100 years were spent bringing it back in."
Consider government as employer. Today, the federal government, the 50 states, and myriad cities, counties, and other local governments together employ nearly 17 million people. That's one of every eight American workers. And that total doesn't include the millions of people who work for public schools, hospitals, and relief groups, all dedicated to the public interest.
Government clearly has a huge impact on your life, but its role is changing in ways that can make it even more responsive to your particular needs.
Service at the Speed of Light
Looking over the past 2 centuries, you can see that if there has been one constant to government, it's been change. That's even more true today, says Thomas J. Bergin, Ph.D., professor of computer science and information systems at American University in Washington, D.C.
Two of the driving forces behind today's changes are relatively new pieces of technology: the personal computer and the Internet—and it's not only the face of government that now has a digital appearance.
"The Internet will become the major backbone of our entire culture," predicts Dr. Bergin. Already, it has revolutionized the way government interacts with its citizens. As an example, Dr. Bergin tells how, not so long ago, he needed a tax form.
"I called the feds, and I was on the phone for 45 minutes," he recalls. "After that, it took a full 3 weeks to get the form in the mail." Today, you can download that form from the Internet and print it out in a matter of minutes.
That's just one small way that the government's Internet connection is making it more responsive to the average person's needs. If you live in Boston, you can pay your traffic tickets online. If you're a contractor in Seattle, you can check on the progress of your building permit via computer. If you own a company in Washington state, you can pay your taxes on the Internet.
In addition, the more removed you are from a major city, the more valuable this connection can be. "Some poor guy out in the hinterlands, for example, can now put together a federal loan application in days instead of months," says Dr. Bergin. Over the next 10 years, governments at all levels hope to put nearly all of their services online, he says.
The Evolution of Devolution
There's an even more exciting concept being embraced by government officials these days. It's called devolution. Basically, it means shifting responsibility—and money—from the federal level to the states and from the states to the local governments.
Devolution has been gathering speed for two decades, since the first presidential term of Ronald Reagan, says Frank T. Colon, Ph.D., professor of political science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who also serves as an elected official in nearby Hanover Township.
In the early 1980s, for example, the federal government stopped building its own subsidized housing for the poor; instead, it gave the states grants to provide a variety of social services, including housing. Another example: In 1996, Congress and the president enacted welfare reform, giving states control of the welfare system.
But you're not on welfare, and you don't live in subsidized housing. How can devolution affect you?
Try money, accountability, and accessibility.
When programs are passed down to the local level, it means that the people in charge of them—your state, county, city, and town representatives—are closer to you and hence more accessible and accountable.
This kind of accessibility is going to be increasingly important, says Dr. Colon, as more programs and services are devolved. Expect to see fewer state police and more regional police forces in the future. Expect more environmental programs to move from the state to the local level. The same is likely to be true of many other services, such as employment programs, park management, and land use—all things that will directly affect you.
GETTING YOUR SHARE
Yes, government has changed, potentially opening up a world of benefits, goods, and services to you. As Dr. Wood says, "There are expectations that you wouldn't have dreamed of years ago, when the only contact with government you had was when it delivered the mail."
To get what you want, you need to know whom to contact at the local level and then how to get them to respond to your needs. Here are six ways to find the right people.
Read the Local Newspapers
"Ask 10 people where they get their news, and 9 of them will say TV and major newspapers," says David Hershey-Webb, community advocate for New York State Assemblyman Edward Sullivan. But the major media concentrate on the big names. The small names—the elected officials, volunteer commissioners, and full-time bureaucrats who run your town or city—rarely appear in print outside of small- town and giveaway newspapers.
"There are hidden treasures of information in small newspapers that only the savvy know to look for," Hershey-Webb says. For example, stories about local boards will tell you who chairs each meeting, who runs the staff—in short, who really makes the decisions.
These newspapers also will tell you over time which agencies get a lot done and which ones merely talk. As an added benefit, small-town papers are crammed with features such as comprehensive listings of elected officials' offices.
Check Out the Local Library
"It may seem kind of tame, but most public libraries have tremendous amounts of information about services at a local level," says Bill Schechter, director of the Program for Community Problem Solving at the National Civic League, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes citizen participation. "Librarians can point you in the right direction, but few people ever think to look there."
Ask your librarian for written materials listing the top officials in local governments; the local, state, and federal programs that serve your region; and how you can use those services.
Visit the Local Historical Society
Historical societies "are seldom-used reservoirs of information about how things work," Hershey-Webb says. "Curators are often oral historians who can tell you exactly how your government operates and who's in charge."
Also, historical societies may interview prominent local citizens to get perspective on past controversies. Sometimes, the people they interview are still active in local affairs, and what they say about past doings can give you insight into who really runs your town and how they think and act.
Look for a Community Organization
"Community organizations are often well-kept secrets," Hershey-Webb says, "but the good ones have a keen knowledge of whom to bring pressure on in order to get certain things done."
Highly visible community organizations will get regular mentions in the community newspaper. But don't stop there. Hershey-Webb also suggests calling local clergy to see if they can point you to a good community organization. You should attend at least one meeting, introduce yourself to the group's coordinator, and ask for literature about their issues and work.
Meet a Caseworker
Every member of Congress, many state legislators, and even county and city elected officials hire caseworkers, whose job is to make government work for voters.
Casework is a big deal to elected officials because it helps them be reelected. Former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York was so famous for his attention to constituent service that he was known as "Pothole Al."
Schechter suggests making an appointment with a caseworker in the office of one of your local officials. Tell the caseworker that you want to know what he does, how he might help you, and how to contact him.
Caseworkers are valuable allies. They know how the system works, they can tell you where to find the answers you need, and they can make that vital first call to get you in the right door. If that isn't enough, they can intercede, using the clout of their boss on your behalf.
"Usually, when people need assistance, they'll ask their congressmember or assemblymember, because that's what they're there for," explains Schechter. "But the real grassroots work is done by caseworkers, the local foot soldiers who work in the offices of these officials and whose responsibility it is to troubleshoot specific problems for individual constituents."
Meet Your Neighbors
If a neighborhood problem concerns you, there's a good chance that it concerns some of your neighbors as well. Neighborhood associations exist to deal with the gritty problems that are too small for community groups or city councils but too big for one or two discontented residents. Neighborhood associations are great vehicles for lobbying for traffic lights, fighting unsightly developments, and generally making the neighborhood heard at city hall.
In Los Angeles, for example, the nation's second largest city, neighborhood groups routinely have a say in big developments. Local groups demanded and achieved preservation of some wetlands near the site of Steven Spielberg's proposed Dream Works studio. Other neighborhood groups won parking restrictions near the billion-dollar Getty Center and made sure that the vast arts campus was painted pale tan, not bright white as architect Richard Meier had intended.
WAYS TO GET WHAT YOU WANT
So, now you know whom to ask for help. That still leaves a big question: How can you make sure that you, of all the thousands of folks seeking help, are heard? Keep these four simple rules in mind.
Say you're a government worker, and you get calls from two citizens. The first one is demanding and obnoxious; the second is friendly and reasonable. Which person would you go out of your way to help?
"The more pleasant you are to government workers, the more approachable they'll be," says Bob Kalian, co-author of The Best Free Things in America.
— WHAT INSIDERS SAY:
Harold Rubin, a professional mediator with more than 20 years of experience, suggests three steps that you can take to put a government official in your corner. "First, acknowledge that you're grateful that this person is there to help you and that you respect his ability and appreciate his willingness to help," he says. "Second, make it clear that you don't see him as the problem; you're coming to him because he has the skill to take care of you. And third, sympathize with him and acknowledge how difficult it must be to have to listen to people's complaints all day. This puts you both on the same side of the fence instead of on opposing sides."
Before you ask for help, be sure you have answers to the obvious questions. How deep is the pothole that you want filled? Where exactly is it? How long has it been there? Is it isolated or part of a major road problem?
"Try to prepare ahead of time for any questions the government worker might ask you," says Kalian. "By making his work a little easier, you stand a better chance of getting swift action on your request."
Don't ask to have your street repaved when you simply need a pothole filled. Figure out exactly what you want before you ask. You probably will get only a few minutes of an official's time, so don't waste it on side issues.
Don't let someone stonewall you. If you're not getting satisfaction from the "assistant director of pothole repair," politely ask to speak to the director. If you can't find an employee who will give you satisfaction, take your case to the elected official who oversees the department.
If the first person you call doesn't have the authority to help you, ask him to recommend someone who does have it. Ask the first person to help you get your foot in the next guy's door. And be sure to mention your first contact's name when you call the next person in the chain. That should convince him that you're serious and prevent him from bouncing you back to the person you first called.
"It never hurts to create a careful `paper trail' of your complaints and how you've gone about trying to solve them," Hershey-Webb says. "Letters, photographs (where applicable), and even phone logs serve to keep the issue clear to you and can serve as evidence of your efforts to solve the problem if you have to appeal to a higher authority."
— WHAT INSIDERS SAY:
Watch the calendar. There are days when even the friendliest government agency won't have the time to help you.
"In general, few government workers are going to be able to do much for you if you call them on a Friday afternoon or the day before a long weekend," Kalian says.
Other times to avoid? "The end of the fiscal year (September 30 for the federal government and June 30 for most state and local governments) can be bad because agencies are trying to close their books," Kalian says.
"The start of a newly elected administration means a lot of new people in new offices, so they won't necessarily have a grasp of their agency. Also, depending upon the agency, governments usually have their fewest workers on staff in the summer months."
THE INSIDE TRACK
Suppose that you want to get to know a family who just moved in down the street. You probably would stop by, introduce yourself, and get to know them on a personal basis. Well, the same principle holds true for getting what you want from government. Here's how to make yourself and your wishes known.
Be a Familiar Face
You get mail every day. You probably get several phone messages at home and at work. If you have Internet access, you may get dozens of e-mails daily. You have all of this communication, and you're a private citizen. Now suppose that you're trying to reach the person in charge of repairing your city's streets. Imagine the volume of letters, phone messages, and e-mails that he gets every day. Yours will be just one more on the pile, unless you make yourself stand out.
How can you do that? By meeting your public servants face-to-face.
Hershey-Webb offers a specific example. "I get maybe 20 or 30 calls a day just from constituents who are having some sort of problem with their landlords. Many of them are simply voices at the end of a phone line. And we do what we can for them.
"Not long ago, though, an elderly woman came into our office with a typical complaint—a landlord who wasn't turning on the heat. We sat together, talked a while, and I got a better feel for what she wanted and how I could help," he says. "I think I naturally cared for her more, too, because there's something about a face-to-face encounter that makes strangers become, if not friends, at least allies. Eventually, our office turned up the heat on the landlord, and he did the same in her apartment building."
— WHAT INSIDERS SAY:
Want to improve your chances of getting help from your local rep? Take the time to develop a relationship before you need assistance. "If I'm a public servant, and I've shaken the hand of a constituent at a traffic commission meeting, and we've exchanged pleasant words, I'm going to care more about that constituent when he calls me about installing a stop sign on his corner than I would if we'd never met," Kalian says.
Join a Board
Elected officials in local government are almost always part-time, says Lehigh University political science professor Dr. Frank Colon. Because of that, there's no way they have the time to keep track of everything that goes on in their governments, so they form volunteer advisory boards. There are numerous examples: parks and recreation boards, zoning boards, hospital boards, library boards, and police boards. The boards are staffed by unpaid volunteers, nominated by members of local government. They usually meet once or twice a month for a couple of hours.
If you volunteer for one of these boards, says Dr. Colon, "you get to be an insider and see how things function. You get to know who the players are. You have access."
Let's say that you have a beef about your new property tax assessment. If you're on a board, chances are good that you'll know the assessor's name and the elected official who oversees that department. And if you don't know it, you'll know someone who does. "Best of all, you're in a position where somebody is more likely to listen to you," says Dr. Colon.
Getting on a board is usually pretty easy. Simply write or call the local town or county official who represents your area. Ask for a list of board vacancies and look for one that might interest you, then ask the official to nominate you for the position.
In many areas, local governments are starved for board members, says Dr. Colon, and they'll be glad for your involvement. In other areas, it might be a bit tougher. If that's the case, you may be put on a waiting list.