Getting Involved in Local Government: How do I find out what is going on?

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Have you ever wondered how to get involved in your local government but felt overwhelmed trying to figure out how to engage? I hear you! I serve on my local City Council and still find it confusing at times. To help, I put together two sets of lists of tips and tricks. In this list, I cover tips on how to stay looped in on the latest local government happenings. In my second list, I cover how to reach out and share your views with your local elected officials.

How do I find out what is even going on?

The local paper used to be the be-all-end-all for knowing what was going on in our communities. The new stories, columns, letters to the editor, and community calendar were how you knew what was happening. I might be dating myself a little, but I remember reading the calendar section of our local paper as a kid. I’d also skim the letters to the editor and feel famous by proxy if I recognized a name. With the decline in investment in local print media and the rise of social media, we need new strategies to stay in the loop. Here are my go-to sources:

Local Journalism

Skimming the local paper (online) and listening to a local radio station (on the smart speaker these days) are key to knowing what is going on locally. I see many folks frustrated by paywalls, but I view paying for local coverage as an investment in my community. Local journalists provide an important sunshine and oversight function for local government. The coverage might not always be great, but I want them there as part of the landscape. 

Municipal Newsletters/Social Media Accounts

Many local governments now send out weekly newsletters and/or have their own social media accounts. These are a great resource for information about local events and activities, public meeting agendas, updates on municipal projects, and more. They cover important information to help stay up to speed as you get involved in local government.  While these sources are a helpful, don’t forget that it’s the local municipality talking about themselves. We still need local media to unpack what else residents what to know about and to ask important questions. 

Local Social Media Pages

Many communities have informal volunteer-run social media pages. These can be a great source of finding out about events, proposals for new projects, and hot button local issues. Some pages might be more general to a whole community. Other pages focus on a certain demographic (i.e. moms) or an issue (i.e. local volunteer trash pick ups). They are not in necessarily great place to engage with local elected officials, but that seems to be shifting a bit too. Many local officials are starting to follow and join in on discussions in these groups. 

Elected officials social media accounts and newsletters

Similar to government pages and newsletters, local elected officials now more commonly have social media pages and/or newsletters as well. This is a good way to get a sense of what is important to your elected officials. It can also be a great way to interact with them to provide input on specific issues.

Public Meetings

Public meetings really are the heart of getting involved in local government. If there is an issue you are interested in, consider attending related public meetings or watching the meetings online. These can be a great place to hear what other people in your community think about issues like education funding, environmental issues, or even just how passionate some folks are about parking. The meeting schedules can sometimes be challenging to attend while juggling work and family though. Many municipalities now stream public meetings online so you can still follow along. But don’t forget that you can also bring your kids along to meetings. It is a great lesson in civic engagement. Plus it reminds elected officials that children are part of our communities! 

Run (or volunteer) for something!

This one might be the most time consuming, but running for local office or serving in a volunteer position is a great way to know what is going on. While elections are pretty straight forward, each community likely addresses the process of being appointed differently. I encourage you to reach out to your Clerk or other community leadership to inquire if you are interested in serving. The focus areas for boards can range from recreation to parking to energy to solid waste – and everything in between! If you are interested in running for something, explore training programs like the “Women Run!” program offered by the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation.

For me it all boils down to triangulation

I try to keep an eye on a couple different sources to know what is going on in my community. It can feel overwhelming at times, but also remember that you don’t have to keep track of absolutely everything. That’s what networks and communities are great for as well. When you are connected to others, you get to see the breadth of what people are interested and passionate about. From there you can chose to weigh in where you feel the most strongly.

What tips do you have for staying up to date? What questions or challenges have you run into?

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