The degree of high political involvement by American society is a historically recognized fact. American residents have a wealth of options available when it comes to airing their discontent and opposing government policies.
The power of letter writing should never be underestimated, particularly in a time of ‘virtual’ mass support for pressure groups and anonymous Internet politics. But if you don’t feel up to speaking directly with local or national representatives, make good use of established groups who will usually be keen to include your grievances in their activities.
This article outlines the many ways in which one can complain to the government.
“An enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion… will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government.”
Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis
The Local Setting
Local authorities have an enormous impact on our day to day lives, they organize all sorts of services and their decisions affect the functioning of many things that we unwittingly rely on. Municipal authorities get the lion’s share of the responsibility in local issues, often being responsible for urban planning, emergency services, public services, transport and everything in between. They even organize the municipal courts which are responsible for settling disputes and minor issues.
Speaking Directly to Your Local Authorities
The heterogeneous nature of U.S. government means that competencies can vary from state to state and municipality to municipality. Who you approach will depend of the organizational structure in you area, which will also determine the response time. Having said this, you will almost always find that there are systems in place set up to let you express grievances and make suggestions.
Start out by looking at your local authority’s website to check that what you want to discuss is their responsibility. If it is, consider voicing your grievances simultaneously through several channels for better results.
Use this government directory to help put you in touch with your local government.
Complaining to Elected Representatives
At county or municipal levels of government there are many elected posts, from Mayor to Supervisor, Sheriff, Treasurer and even Weed Superintendent, so finding who to contact will require a little research on your part. Click here to find the elected officials for your area.
Usually you will find that there are elected representatives who will be happy to listen and who may take up your issue. Much of an elected representative’s legitimacy is based on their success in engaging the community, so they should be keen to prove that they can make obscure parts of the decision making system more accessible.
Take the time to document your case, write down the main aspects that make up the issue in order of importance. If there are comparable cases, check what precedents have been established. Explaining and backing up your case will strengthen your argument and encourage people to take you seriously.
Not everybody shares the same thoughts on everything, so when searching for a listening ear, bear it in mind. It will be a far more fruitful and easier experience if you reach those who are likely to be open to your problem.
These often prove useful to larger organizations but can also be of help to individuals. If you are lucky enough to ‘know someone’, ask for their opinion on the matter. They may well know how to approach the problem and could help you to reach the right person.
Grievance and Feedback Mechanisms
One of the most common forms is the ombudsman. The office of the Ombudsman is usually aimed at maintaining quality of service in a particular area of public services and investigating failings on citizen’s behalf.
For example, Oregon’s ‘Long-Term Care Ombudsman’ website claims the role involves trying to “enhance the quality of life, improve the level of care, protect the individual’s rights and promote the dignity of each Oregon citizen residing in a long-term care facility.” The ombudsman’s office works using network of paid officials and volunteers, they also encourage members of the public to contact them if they have “concerns about the quality of care or the rights of residents at a long-term care facility.
It may seem to be an indirect way of making a government complaint, but in fact it can be surprisingly responsive. You will, as usual, need to do your homework and take the time to explain things clearly.
Make a good effort to follow things up, and remember that public servants work for you and the public at large. Understand the procedural steps and keep up the pressure with civility without expecting too much too soon, frustration and stress are two things that you don’t need to inflict upon yourself.
Local Associations and Groupings
These will be able to inform you on the likely outcome of your complaint, as well as what form it should take. One such group successfully campaigned for permission of an ‘Iraeli- Palestinian Conflict’ themed-talk at their local libraryi in Greenwich, Connecticut. On the other side of the spectrum, the Sierra Club works at both local and federal levels. This allows for campaigns that focus on broader environmentalist goals and for campaigns aimed at specific local issues, depending on the needs of each case.
If you are unsure what groups might be interested in the problem, look through the local media, the Internet and possibly the websites of local party associations in search of links. Contact details for most groups are easily found on the web and speaking to someone will not be hard.
These associations exist because they deal with the concerns and problems of the local residents, they will encourage you to take action and become involved with them. Such involvement may help you to strengthen your case, but could make your opposition to government policies lose its ‘individual’ quality.
Group action is useful if you lack the time or desire to deal directly with public institutions. There is often a wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience within such groupings, this enables people to do things that they might normally lack the confidence or know-how to carry out.
Republican, Democrat and Other Party Associations
Another approach, and one that can be used in conjunction with some of the other non-conflict based techniques, is speaking directly to local party associations. They are very aware that being seen as a connection between the national situation and the public at large can create solid support at election time. As a member of the general public you represent the public as a whole, underline that the issue affects you and others like you and ask what they suggest be done about it.
Feel free to demand answers but remember that you will get very different responses from the two main parties, and that they will try to turn you to their way of thinking. You are an important resource for them and the mere fact that you have made the effort to contact them warrants a good response, so your view will always have some sort of impact.
The National Setting
If you wish to make your voice heard and complain to the government on national issues, you can use many of the same strategies as at the local level, especially if you intend to work through a group or association. Other alternatives available to the ‘man on the street’ are largely institutional such as the Federal Ombudsman for the IRS, for victims of crime, etc. These are worth trying, it’s always worth exploiting as many routes as possible and the institutions that check the government need your support to do their work.
Speaking to Your Congressional Representatives
If you feel up to speaking directly with your elected representatives and would like to complain to congress members, you can contact them by phone, letter or email. Email is probably the least effective of the three as your emails may be considered junk mail, I must admit that it has worked for me in the past though.
To speak directly to your representatives you should prepare your argument clearly and think about what your main issues are. Have all relevant sources and documents handy so that you can refer to them if necessary. Once everything is in place you can call the US Capitol switchboard on (202)224-3121 and ask to be put through to your representative, the most likely event is that the person you will talk to will be a member of their staff. Ask them to take a message in which you express you dissent or unhappiness with the policy in question.
Letters are the most common way of approaching members of Congress. When writing the letter be courteous, get straight to the point from the first paragraph and only deal with one issue in any one letter. You can find contact infomation for your congressional representatives at Congress.org.
Contacting the White House
The same guidelines apply if you wish to make your views and government complaints known to the White House. Click here for details on contacting the white house.
Contacting National Institutions
Another option is to get in touch with the institution that deals with the policy matter that you wish to speak about. While they are not political institutions they will still be likely to take note of the issue but most importantly they may be able to offer you valuable information such as who the relevant ombudsman might be. Their websites contain all the information you will need to contact them and possibly some answers to your questions.
A Citizens Right and Responsibility
Whatever level of government you deal with, remember that you are supposed to get involved in issues that affect you and those around you. Your actions are an invaluable contribution to the system, giving those in charge one more piece of the puzzle to understand the real situation. Don’t be put off by unhelpful or officious people and if necessary, find a different person or alternative route. The government exists for you, you must question it when there is a problem and feel free to oppose policies that you disagree with. Grub Street Writing and Translation: Leaving out the parts that people skip