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How often have we been advised to 'write our Congressmen' when we're up to our armpits in some sort of dilemma or challenge such as mammoth-sized pot-holes, funky school lunches, or runaway drug costs for senior citizens? So now you've decided to take action and ask for help from your Uncle Sam (or local Alderman). Good for you, let's get started!
1. Start with: what, who, where? It helps to clarify exactly what your problem is, so you can determine who or where is your best source of help. For example, if you were indeed plagued by potholes, you would first start with your local phone directory to check your town or city's listing for either Public Works, or a Highway Department. Depending where the offending holes are located determines whether you need local or state assistance. Actually, that local telephone directory is a decent source of some basic government information, from the municipal all the way to the White House.
2. Be 'Yellow' - It's OK! For more detailed information, an excellent directory of government agencies and the folks that run them can be found in the 'Yellow' books. These references, published by Leadership Directories, Inc., are issued quarterly and have an abundance of Who's Who type of information, along with addresses and phone numbers. Popular titles are the Federal and Congressional Yellow Books, but there are books for News Media, Non-Profit, State, Foreign Representatives and much more. A subscription for the Yellow Books can be quite pricey, so a trip to your local library would be the best place to start. Not all town or city libraries might keep these in their collections, but the Reference Librarian can direct you to other sources, most likely at the college or university level. Also, any state library should subscribe to these titles as well.
3. Utilize the Internet... True, the 'curse or cure' debate of how valid or inflammatory the Internet can be for reliable information will rage on for a while to come, but if you have common sense, you will soon find out which sources and websites are dependable or not. As far as government information goes, here are a few helpful sites.
FirstGov.gov: The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal (http://www.firstgov.gov/)
AOL's Government Guide (http://www.governmentguide.com)
Yahoo's Directory (http://dir.yahoo.com/Government)
Government Resources on the Web (http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/)
Don't be afraid to also just plug in a few good keywords into your preferred search engine. You may find a more direct route to your answer. For example, the Massachusetts Highway Department's website has a section already set up to report potholes.
Consider letter etiquette. Yes, you now need to actually write the letter. The "Handbook for Writers", (Troyka, Lynn Quitman; Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1990) suggests the following business letter format (shown below). Obviously, if you are writing from a business, you would use a company letterhead, but if writing as a private citizen, any plain stationary will do. The opening remains the same.
March 14, 2005
Michael Chertoff, Secretary
United States Department of Homeland Security
National Security Station
Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues, NW
Washington, DC 20528
Subject: Security at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport
Dear whoever you are writing to:
Your problems, questions or statements should go in the body of the letter, here. Please keep in mind that though it's important to be able to vent out frustrations, a letter filled with profanities, insults, or poorly thought out ideas will not be well received at all. The old expression about 'catching more flies with honey than vinegar' still applies today. Be sure to say at least once with no disrespect (optional)
(Your Signature Here)
Mr. John Q. Public
cc: the name and title if applicable of anyone else who will be receiving a copy of this letter.}}
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