By Karl Kurtz
Lee Hamilton, the former member of Congress who directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University, extolls the virtue of consituent service in a recent column. His message is aimed at Congress, but it applies equally well to state legislators.
After describing a U.S. senator who said that he didn't have time for constituent problems, Hamilton comments:
I ran into someone from my district once who told me, "I don't agree with you most of the time, but I'm voting for you because you take good care of your constituents." People notice. And they care. That senator who rebuffed the plea for help? He was defeated in the next election.
But there's more to it than just currying favor with the electorate. Good constituent service, I believe, is crucial to being a good elected representative.
There's no mystery why. The federal government is vast, complex, and confusing, and it touches far more lives than any private company. Sometimes it's a model of efficiency, but too often it's agonizingly slow to get off a passport or approve a disability payment. And it makes mistakes — a transposed Social Security number, a wrong address, a benefit miscalculation — and then drags its heels fixing them. Its rules and regulations can be hard to navigate. Ordinary Americans get caught up in the gears, and they need help.
As a member of Congress, you can learn a lot by paying attention. Though it's a habit for legislators to think of policy-making and constituent service as two distinct halves of their responsibilities, that's not always the case. The problems people are having keep you alert to what might need to be done legislatively. If there's a huge backlog of disability cases at the Social Security Administration, for instance, or a surge of veterans having trouble getting their benefits, that ought to be a warning sign. Workers in those agencies may be struggling to remain efficient, or they may need additional staff and resources — either way, it bears investigating and, possibly, legislative action.
And he concludes:
I've been out of public office for over a decade, yet the other day a neighbor stopped me on the street to ask for help speeding up a visa application. Americans need a point of contact with their government. If you're a public official — or even an ex-public official — get used to the idea that you're it.