IDEA #31. Write a letter to a public official suggesting a solution to a problem you see in your community, state, or country. Make sure that your letter is detailed and persuasive and that the official you are writing to actually has some authority in the matter you are writing about. Pat yourself on the back if you receive an answer; give yourself a reward if your answer is not a form letter; persuade someone to take you to dinner if your letter actually makes a difference.
Like the letter to the editor, the letter to a public official is a fundamental building block of a democratic society; the letter is even part of that “right to petition” that is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Even in an age when politicians tend to look to polls and to visits from lobbyists for guidance on important issue, letters from constituents still receive a surprising amount of attention at all levels of government.
A letter to a public official should, like an editorial letter, be clear in intent and as concise as possible. It should also, of course, express a point of view or make clear a course of action that is being recommended. If possible, it would also be a nice touch to make some specific reference to the official’s position or track record on the general issue.
Before writing a letter the youngster should give some thought to and possibly do some research on the matter of a proper recipient. If the matter is local, who are the local or regional officials who deal with the particular issue? If the matter is statewide, should the letter be to the executive branch—the governor and or someone in a particular department—or to a member of the legislative branch? On a national level the question is the same. Along the way, the letter-writer will learn a good deal about the three branches of government as well as about the structure of state and local administrative systems—levels of government that are often unknown territory for students.
An opening paragraph might introduce the writer vis-à-vis the official (constituent, neighbor, interested observer) and then make clear how and why the issue under discussion is important in the writer’s life.
Body paragraphs, which could number one or more, ought to set forth the writer’s recommendations with as much supporting detail as possible. In the latter sections and appeal to the official’s self-interest is permissible (“I’m sure that with 28% of voters in this district being retired, many people would find the policy helpful”), as is any kind of distinctly personal touch might underscore the writer’s point (“Since my sister uses a wheelchair, accessibility in all of our playgrounds is very important to me”).
A closing paragraph should thank the official for his or her attention to the matter and perhaps include an offer to meet face-to-face with the official to discuss the matter. As with the letter to the editor, proper business-letter form is very important here, although it would not be necessary to type or word-process.
Many officials with large constituencies and large offices—the President, many senators and governors—will have form letter answers—some, it must be acknowledged, maddeningly bland and noncommittal—that are sent almost automatically to letter writers; the same holds true for many members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Well-crafted, provocative letters to officials at any level can, however, elicit thoughtful, personal responses, and, on rare occasions, a letter-writer can be rewarded by action—even the very thing the writer has recommended.
But any answer is at least an answer, and the young writer will grasp the idea that the government does actually listen to the people, even when it does not always act in swift accordance with each individual’s wish.