Did you know you don’t need to be an elected official to make a difference in your local government?
Citizen watchdogs are an essential part of protecting the freedoms we enjoy every day. Watchdogs hold elected officials accountable, protect taxpayer dollars and identify waste, fraud and abuse.
In Edgar County, Ill., a former Air Force mechanic and a former janitor teamed up to start cleaning up their county’s government. Starting in 2011, John Kraft and Kirk Allen have been shining a spotlight on local government.
The pair’s research has helped spark multiple federal investigations, and the team has chased more than 200 government officials from office. Thanks to their efforts, local governments in Edgar County and the rest of Illinois are being held accountable.
Being a watchdog can sound intimidating and time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to get started. Here are some ways you can get into the watchdog game.
FOIA—which stands for Freedom of Information Act—is a law on the federal level that requires government officials to release information when it’s requested by citizens.
Lots of states have similar FOIA laws in place, too. The first step is to find out what freedom of information regulations are in place in your state and how to use them. The First Amendment Foundation’s FOIA map is a good place to start.
Once you get familiar with your state’s freedom of information laws, you can start using them to request documents.
Make sure you follow all the requirements when submitting your request. Often, bureaucrats and lawmakers aren’t going to want to give up any information that makes them look bad, so don’t give them any reason to reject your request.
Be persistent. Follow up after submitting your request, and don’t be afraid to loop in allied organizations or even the local media if you feel like you’re being stonewalled.
Sunshine laws guarantee the public has access to most meetings held by lawmakers and regulators. These laws usually require advance notice of any meetings and the posting of detailed agendas. Typically, transcripts or even recordings of the meetings are made public.
You can use sunshine laws to attend meetings and show bureaucrats they’re being watched by citizens. You can also use them to hold those bureaucrats accountable if they don’t follow sunshine laws.
The County’s Website
In many counties it’s easy to give the recent budget or newest ordinance a thorough review—it’s published on the county’s website. Lots of counties publish everything from public testimony to meeting notes to new regulations. Some even post videos of their committee hearings.
With just a few clicks, you can start holding your lawmakers accountable. Go over the budget or the latest monthly meeting minutes with a fine-toothed comb and you might be surprised what you find.
Want to take your watchdog skills to the next level? Our watchdog training will equip you with the tools you need. Check to see if this training is coming to a city near you and sign up for our email list here