Many citizens would assume that holding politicians accountable for their actions isn't too difficult in a representative democracy that values civic engagement. But in America today, we're faced with a political process often more catered to moneyed interests than the will of the people. This has lead many Americans to disengage in politics or become slacktivists -- people who believe they're making change by participating in temporary, feel-good measures (like sharing links or firing off on social media) that don't result in real policy change.
But perhaps slacktivism is on the rise because in the past and very recently, legislators have come under fire for ignoring citizen voices. For instance, back in 2011 at least 10,000 Wisconsin union workers and supporters protested Gov. Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill, seen as an attack on the bargaining power of unions -- many of which helped him get elected. Despite weeks of heavy protest and civic engagement, the bill passed.
It's no secret that many of our legislators have a knack for voting for their own interests instead of catering to the voice of the people. Even 10,000 protestors couldn't get Scott Walker to change his mind -- so what can ordinary citizens really do to hold representatives accountable?
Revving up civic engagement isn't easy by any means, but if constituents are steadfast in their efforts, there are a few ways we can still ensure politicians listen to our concerns:
1. Follow your representative's voting patterns. When it comes time for reelection, it's important to know just how well your representative kept his or her original promises. Follow your representative's voting patterns throughout the year to stay up-to-date. Check sites like PolitiFact.org, which evaluates just how true statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists, and interest groups are. Or try OpenCongress.org, which allows you to see each bill and how your representative voted. Be sure to sign up for your legislators' email alerts and follow them on social media to keep tabs on their votes, too.
2. Know how to contact your legislators. Did you know that in 2007 only 37 percent of Americans polled could name their state governor? Knowing your state and local representatives -- and how to contact them -- is key for holding politicians accountable and fueling civic engagement. A site like whoismyrepresentative.com can get you this information easily. Add your representatives' office numbers to your cell phone so you can quickly let your voice be heard when you have an opinion on new legislation. All you have to do is dial, identify yourself as a constituent, and state your case -- it takes less than five minutes.
3. Show up to community events. Email, social media, and cell phones mean political participation can be done from the comfort of your home, but there's something to be said for the knowledge and support gained at in-person events. Show up to public forums, committee meetings, speaking events, and other gatherings your representatives hold locally. Encourage friends, family, and members of any political organizations you may be a part of to join as well. Showing politicians and local government you're paying attention often starts with having a physical presence where they're already at.
4. Get off the couch. Showing support or opposition to current political initiatives has a tenfold effect if you take it to the public. Creating a public display like a rally, march, or open forum can offer your ideas more reach and even get picked up by the media. The widespread use of social media and mobile devices means drumming up support is easier than ever. Email blasts, petitions, and blizzarding with fliers or brochures can also be a great way to rally others in your local community for civic engagement.
5. Solicit contributions. Plenty of cities are using my company's technology to hear citizen ideas and concerns. For example, Austin, TX has already implemented 23 publically-brainstormed ideas via Speak Up Austin!, their online portal for legislative discussion. Blacksburg, VA has recently followed suit, opening up an online forum for civic engagement and community discussion. If your community doesn't have a similar option, consider starting an open Facebook group to crowdsource ideas and bring up key concerns.
Politicians may often vote in the favor of lobbyists or other personal interests, but that doesn't mean civic engagement should fly out the window. Keeping tabs on your legislators and actively participating in the political process is the first step to holding our politicians accountable.
Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Connect with Tom and the Granicus team on Twitter and LinkedIn.