At times even an active, enthusiastic civic participant such as myself can suffer a bout of cynicism. I begin to wonder if all my calls, emails and submitted contact forms are actually doing anything.
But it turns out the half hour I block out for civic activism before I start my work day matters after all, according to a recent report by the Congressional Management Foundation.
The report, one of the most comprehensive studies of civic engagement conducted in recent history, assesses the impact of constituent correspondence with Congress. One of its main findings is that the number of people who contact members of Congress has increased exponentially over the past decade. Researchers also found elected representatives value feedback and input from their constituents, although some forms of communication may have a greater impact than others.
That said, it’s also important to keep in mind that staffing shortages (Congressmen are only allowed to hire 18 staffers each) and outdated technology make responding to constituents challenging for congressional offices.
Before one can engage, however, one needs to know what to comment. That means tracking legislation, which can be a daunting prospect even for seasoned political junkies. Fortunately, technology is here to save us.
No, you don’t need a smartphone
Not everyone can afford or even wants a smart phone. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t stay informed about what bills are wending their way through Congress and make your opinion about them heard.
Countable breaks down legislation in plain English, tracks your representatives and how they’re voting based on your zip code and, best of all, allows you to “vote” on any bills you want. Your vote, which can be either a comment or a simple click on a Yea or Nay button, is emailed directly to your representative’s office.
It also has highly customizable email alerts. You can get an email every time your representative or senator votes, on issues or bills you are following and receive news alerts as well.
As an added bonus, when you click on a specific bill you’ll also see many well-written, thoughtful comments by other Countable users expressing why they are for or opposed to that legislation. If you miss civil discourse on the internet, a Countable bill will be an oasis of thoughtful, engaged debate.
5 Calls is another simple, no-smartphone-required way to stay in touch with your representatives.
The premise behind 5 Calls is simple: Every day, it gives you a list of five issues to call your representatives about. It even provides a script you can simply read to the staffer who answers the phone. The issues it encourages you to call about is explained in accessible, every-day language.
You can also log whether you left a voicemail, made contact or no one was available to take your call.
The Congress app
OK, sometimes you need a smartphone.
For the armchair policy wonks and PoliSci warriors out there the Congress app, (unfortunately available only on Android) is a must have.
There is a comparable iPhone app, but for whatever reason, you have to pay for it and it is not designed by the Sunlight Foundation. It is, however, very similar in scope and function.
You can track everything – and I mean everything – that happens in Congress in real time and from every metric possible with this app. You can track specific legislators. Or bills. Committee hearings. Or the elected officials of a state. You can track just the House. Or just the Senate. Go crazy and get lost down the rabbit hole of all of the above. There is simply no better app for witnessing the inexorable grinding gears of the federal government.
So if the word “cloture” gets you excited or you don’t want to form an opinion until you’ve familiarized yourself with Section II(a)-3 of a regulation – and you want easy, one-tap access to said regulation – this app may be worth switching phones.
And of course, there’s one-touch dialing to Congressional representatives as well.
But who has the time?!
You do. No, really, you do. Yes, I know, there’s that thing at work and your family needs this stuff and now this other thing just popped up, too. I get it, believe me. I used to feel the same way.
The key is to stop thinking of civic engagement as this monumental, additional chore and treat it like just another part of your self-care routine, like brushing your teeth or taking your dog out for a walk.
Make your 5 Calls during your morning commute. Or use your 15-minute walking around the office break to skim your Countable updates. The next time you read an article and need to rant about it, open up one of your action apps and call your representative and rant to the staffer who answers the phone instead of ranting about it on your social media feed.