Your Role in Our Representative Democracy: A NASPActs Guide to Policy Basics

The following post was originally published on the Research and Policy Blog on May 11, 2017. 


Engaging with our representative democracy is essential to maintaining the health and function of our nation’s government. Whether you’re just getting started on your journey to becoming an engaged participant or looking for a resource to share with those who are starting theirs, this post will lay out some specific suggestions for learning and engaging in local, state, and national policy conversations. Student affairs professionals are sometimes hesitant to engage in active advocacy because of uncertainty about where their role as campus employee ends and their rights as a citizen begins. While we can’t offer legal advice or guidance, we have provided some tips and suggestions for engaging politically as an institutional employee.

Step 1:  Learn

The first step in becoming a more engaged citizen is to learn. What you choose to learn about is up to you, and the possibilities are nearly endless. While online search engines can be a good place to start finding national or international groups or organizations that are active in advocating for issues or ideas that you support, also consider taking some time to explore things closer to home. Find you where your town or city council meets, or the local school board, and attend a meeting or two to learn more about the issues facing your community.

Do you have a bit more time to commit to learning more in depth? Check to see if there is a Citizens Academy in your area. Government agencies, typically a county government, run Citizens Academies to provide an inside look into the functions of the various government offices and positions. Citizens Academies typically run for several weeks with meetings one evening per week. Citizens Academies foster understanding within the communities they serve about the functions of local, county, state, or even federal agencies.

Once you’ve identified issues that you want to track more regularly, visit your local or campus library, read the headlines in your local, state, or national newspaper, or take a virtual tour through the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Policy Basics Archive or the National Conference of State Legislatures research resources. Follow associations or organizations that track the issues you’re interested in on social media if they’re active in spaces you visit regularly, or sign up for action alerts to be sent to your email if they’re available. As you conduct research, be aware of falling into the echo chamber of confirmation bias, which tend to favor information that supports your belief or opinion, while ignoring information that contradicts it. There are apps you can use that will help you see things from different perspectives. 

Step 2:  Engage

Learning, though very important, is only the first step in becoming an engaged participant in our representative democracy; voting, contacting your elected officials, and staying informed about the actions of your representatives is the next one. Voting is not something that only happens once every year or two; there are many local and state elections held in most jurisdictions throughout the year. You may be familiar with the quip “All politics are local”, and when it comes to affecting change in the day-to-day lives of individuals, that’s especially true. In some counties, judges and sheriffs, individuals who are central to the judicious functioning of our justice systems are elected positions. Check with your state board of elections to make sure you know about upcoming elections in time to learn about the candidates on issues and cast your vote! 

Voting is not the end of your responsibility, though; it’s important to establish regular communication with your elected officials. As discussed in our post on our representative democracy, elected officials can only represent the views of their constituents if they know their opinions. Any resident of an elected official’s jurisdiction can contact the official here are many websites that provide contact information for your state and federal representatives. You have the option of a phone call, fax, postal mail, email, text message, or by attending a meeting or event being held by them. There are also organizations that can help you keep up with other elected officials, like judgeslaw enforcement, and more.

Keep in mind that unless you are representing your employer’s opinion or stance in an official capacity, you should always use a personal email address when contacting your elected officials by email. This is especially important if you work for a public institution, where additional laws may restrict your use of institutional resources, such as email servers or work time, to contact elected officials. It is generally a best practice to contact your officials during your non-work hours from a personal email address to avoid any appearance of impropriety. .

3.  Represent

Engaging in dialogue and debate with other participants in our representative democracy is one of the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Sharing what you’ve learned about an issue, topic, or candidate can help encourage others to become involved and send stronger messages to elected officials about the will of their constituents. Whether you’re posting analysis of an issue or proposed piece of legislation on social media or attending speeches, town hallsrallies, or lobbying days to promote a position or idea, or even deciding to run for office yourself, you’re taking part in the third step: representing your ideas and opinions.

When attending political events during your non-work hours, whether they are on or off campus, avoid wearing clothing or accessories that identify you as affiliated with the institution. If you speak at an event, especially if students you work with are present, consider prefacing your remarks by stating that you’re speaking as an individual citizen, not as a representative of your institution. If you participate in social media using publicly accessible accounts or accounts that students or other faculty or staff follow, add a sentence to your profile stating that the opinions you express are your own and do not represent your employer. You may also want to avoid posting or commenting on political issues during your work hours.

Employees at public institutions may have additional rules governing when, where, and what kinds of activism they are allowed to engage in. It’s always a good practice to familiarize yourself with any campus, local, or state policies governing your responsibilities as a state employee and any restrictions that may place on your political speech. For instance, laws governing lobbying by state employees may prevent you from speaking out on specific legislation using institutional resources, which may include computers or wireless networks. If you are planning to speak publicly on specific legislation or in favor of or opposition to a specific candidate, you should always use your own computer connected to a public or personal network. If you’re unsure of your rights or responsibilities as a public employee in political arenas, speak with your campus human resources office or general counsel. 

If you want to learn more about how to bring civic engagement into your work with students, NASPA’s Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) focus area and the upcoming CLDE Meeting, jointly sponsored by the American Democracy ProjectThe Democracy Commitment, and NASPA, are great resources. We’d love to see you in Baltimore next month!


Was this post helpful? Want to know more policy basics or have questions about how different pieces of the public policy puzzle fit together? Let us know and we may do a post on it in the future!