Most news outlets and pundits focus exclusively on federal politics, to the point that local governance gets completely overlooked. This is to the great detriment of our democracy because your municipal and county government is truly where rubber meets the road. Senators, governors and presidents may make a lot of policy but it is the county supervisors and committee members who are left to make those policies a reality. If you want to make a real difference in your community you need to get engaged at the local level, and here is how to do that.
Know how your local government works
Throughout the United States, most local governance can be broke down into municipal (your city or town) and county (except in Louisiana where they have parishes and Alaska where the have boroughs) government. How these county and municipal governments work varies tremendously. Some have elected mayors, others have city managers appointed by the city council, and some (particularly in New England) are run using Puritan-style direct democracy.
The best way to find out how your city and county are run is by first visiting their website. If you are in a municipality that does not yet have a website contact the City or County Clerk. They may have a brochure or a handout which describes the workings of the local bureaucracy. If they don't, it's time to go to a city council meeting.
Sit in on council meetings
You don't need to become a regular at these meetings, but it's a good idea to stop by these meetings once in a while to know what's going on in your local government. Reading your local newspaper may be beneficial but often it will not give you a full picture of the dynamics of these boards. Sitting in on a meeting, particularly a heated one, can be a great way to find out the agendas of various local policymakers. You will quickly find out that a lot of these people are quite eccentric. Do not let this discourage you; democracy works best when as many people as possible get involved and informed. Don't leave local governance to the crazies. Their decisions can have huge impacts on your community.
Get a seat on a sub committee
Most cities and counties have sub committees tasked with controlling policy on a single issue, such as human services or road construction. Do you think your city's roads are going to pot? Apply at your City or County Clerk to become a board member. You may have to win an election (local elections tend to have tiny voter turnout so in many cases a few signs and getting your friends to vote may very well be enough) but in many cases their are open seats so you might just get the seat by signing up.
Once you are on the board you will need to learn about parliamentary procedure. These are the rules which govern how meetings are run and set the guidelines on things like who can talk when, how votes get done, etc... While each board will have it's own rules most are based on Robert's Rules of Order, the rulebook used by most English-speaking countries for over a century. You can learn more about them here and download a .pdf version of the 1915 rulebook.
Inform the people
Most people simply don't have the time to stay abreast of local issues, even though it controls everything from how hospitals get built in your area to whether or not you get roundabouts instead of traffic lights. Becoming an expert on your local government can be a great networking opportunity and help you meet local business owners as well as helping you inform your friends and family.
Stop being a victim of bad local policy and get involved in your municipal and county government. It can be a great way to build your career and a way for you to feel pride in your community.