Citizens Action Guide
September 29, 2005
I am concerned about an issue that is being considered by the government. What should I do about it?
First of all, get the facts straight. Few things can do less to help your cause than to speak or write something based on false assumptions or inaccurate information. You don't have to know everything (see next question), but whatever you do say should be accurate.
Second, carefully consider your words before you call or write. Would you be more inclined to listen to someone who was ranting or someone who treated you with dignity? Government officials, like all people, should be treated with respect.
I donít have time to call around and get all the facts right now. Is there anything I can do?
If you donít know how to get all the facts, or if you donít have time to find them, call or write the official you are trying to contact (see below for more on that) and let them know you have heard about an issue but donít know all the facts. You can ask them to tell you what they know about the issue, and then you can give them your viewpoint. If they donít know anymore than you do, give them your general viewpoint based on what you do know. Then ask, "If I find more information, would you like me to share it with you?"
This approach gains the respect of the person you are contacting, because it shows that you are interested in the truth on an issue, rather than being interested only in venting your emotion at them. This is especially true with someone who generally doesnít see things or vote the way you want them to.
Which public official should I contact?
If it is a national (sometimes called "federal") issue, you may contact the President of the United States, both of your two United States Senators (Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker), and your one United States Representative (also called Congressman), which could be Travis Childers, Bennie Thompson, Gregg Harper, or Gene Taylor, depending on where you live.
If it is a state issue, you may contact Governor Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, your one state senator and your one state representative. (State representatives are not called Congressmen; the state legislature is not called Congress; state senators and representatives may be called legislators.) It is perfectly acceptable to contact your state legislators at home. Also, during the legislative session (usually from January through March), you can call them at the Capitol at 601-359-3307. Not all of them have offices, and even fewer of them have any staff. The rest of the year they have regular jobs just like you, but they are still legislators and need to hear from you. They often do committee and other work even when they are not in session. Click here for online help in finding your state or national representative. (For thr the most accurate results, put your ZIP+4 zip code in the "Search by Last Name or Zip Code" field at the top-left of the screen.)
There will be times when it is appropriate to contact national or state agencies, but if that is the case, your source of information will most likely have told you that.
If the matter is a local issue, you may contact your one county supervisor or your cityís mayor and your cityís alderman or councilman. (Alderman and councilman are two names for officials that serve essentially the same function. In most cases, there is only one who represents your area, but in some cases there are "At Large" aldermen or councilmen who represent the entire city.)
How do I find out who my local officials are?
The officials who represent you are determined by where you live. To find out who your officials are at any level of government (local, state, or national), call your countyís Circuit Clerkís office. Give them your address, and they can tell you the name and address of each official who represents you.
OK, I have my facts, I know who to contact, and I am ready to do something. Should I call, or should I write a letter, send†e-mail, or should I try to go see them in person?
The answer to that question depends on the official, your depth of knowledge, and your comfort level. Generally speaking, a telephone call is the most efficient method. With a phone call, it is quick; you know that someone has heard your message, even if it is a staff person; and you get an immediate response if you talk to the official or a knowledgeable staff member.
If the issue is of great importance to you but the timing is not urgent (no vote coming up soon), you should try to schedule a personal visit with the official. Obviously, you would be able to see their reaction as well as hear it, and you could be assured that your message was not muddled (or ignored) by a staff member.
Perhaps the least effective method of influencing national legislation is to write a letter, with e-mail following close behind.†The most likely path†for a†letter†to a national official is this: a staff member will open the letter, glance at its topic, and send it to the staff member who works on that issue. That staff member will put it in a stack of letters on the same topic (perhaps not reading the full letter before doing that) and send a form letter to you from the official. E-mail messages will most often get†the electronic version of the same treatment.†A letter or e-mail message might also get lost, buried, or otherwise not read. Some offices are more conscientious about their mail, and some Congressmen do pay personal attention to the letters. But they are the exception, primarily because of the volume of correspondence they receive.
Letters are more effective with state and local officials. But remember,†most public officials have more than enough to read. If you do choose to write, the number one rule is KEEP IT SHORT, no more than one or two pages. If you have more to say, do it with another letter another time. Rule #2: make your point early in the letter; donít try to build your case to a dramatic conclusion. If they like your point, theyíll keep reading, but if they read a few paragraphs at the beginning and your point is not clear, theyíll stop reading.
If I call, do I need to talk to the official, or is it alright to talk to a staff member?†
If you are asking the official to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation, you can just leave a message with whoever answers the phone. They will generally†report to†the official the number of calls for or against a particular issue.†You can leave your number or address if you would like someone to call you back or write to you with a response.
If you leave your phone number, donít be offended if a staff person calls you. When calling your U.S. Senator or Congressman, it is often better to speak to a staff member, since a staff person will often know more details about the issue. After all, that is why they are there - to serve as†specialists on particular issue areas. Officials at that level get so many calls and letters that there is not enough time for them to attend to them all personally.
When calling a state legislator at the Capitol in Jackson, you will speak only to the switchboard operator. The operator will send the message to the legislator, who will call you back if you have requested that.
I have my facts together from a trusted source, and I called my official, but he/she didnít accept by information as valid. What do I do now?
Sometimes, officials will refute what you have been told, or will give misleading information. If this happens, thank them respectfully (even if only for their time), and report their response to the source from which you got your information. This will help you and the source, because it could clear up confusion or update old information. It could also work in the reverse. For instance, if the officials are basing their comments on false or old information, you can help them by contacting them again with the truth or new information.
Donít assume they intentionally misled you. They may be working from old information, or they may have been given misleading information by people or groups who oppose your viewpoint. This would be your chance to impart the truth, but only if you have your facts together and if you have treated the official with respect.
If you are someone who calls or writes often, your credibility and influence will be enhanced each time you call or write if you follow this course.