Saturday, 27 March 2010

Cuyahoga Charter Transition Thoughts

On Thursday, after work but before I went to my Applied Quantitative Statistics class at CSU, I spent 3 hours at the Cuyahoga County Ombudsman’s Office making phone calls to Charter Transition volunteers. Along with other members of the Public Engagement Committee, I was calling volunteers that we’d identified as likely to not have heard from a specific workgroup. The goal was to determine if they were still interested in participating and offer them some options on involving themselves, while providing information about upcoming plans for the Economic Development Workgroup.

I hate telephones. Most folks who know me know this. I don’t even like calling my good friends and family. So I wasn’t looking forward to making cold calls to strangers. What I was looking forward to was finding out what questions, comments and ideas the volunteers on my list would have about the process, the County or whatever. I love hearing what other people have to say. That’s just part of my personality. After I’ve got that information, my anthropology degree kicks in and I try to figure out what all these thoughts and opinions mean. I’m used to hearing opinions about the County from my fellow County employees, who have all been around a lot longer than I have, or reading about it (especially over the last 2 years) in a negative light (typically magnified in the comments) on Cleveland.com.

To some extent I was expecting more of the same when I made these calls.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, everyone I called and actually got to talk to was extremely supportive, interested in the information I had to impart and enthusiastic to get involved.

I’m going to be self-important for a moment to make a point. For years I’ve been working in ways that I hope will empower regular folks to affect change in their communities. It’s been a bumpy ride, and I’ve learned a lot through trial and error. I see this process I’m engaging in now as another chance to make that happen. I consider myself an open government advocate, and I’ve learned a lot about the wide-spread institutional resistance against these efforts by interacting with folks at GovLoop, working on the eGovernment Interest Group at the World Wide Web Consortium, and thinking through things on my own at The Design State. I even based one of my papers for my PAD 600 course on the run-up (and delays surrounding) the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive. (Somewhat ironically, the OGD was released the day after I turned in my paper.)

The point of all that is that I’ve done some homework on including citizens in the processes of government. That’s all great, right?

Not really.

All the work I’ve done on my own, and that the Charter Transition is doing now doesn’t mean squat without productive and constructive citizen involvement. It was heartening to me to do the phone banking, because I heard from just a few of the 1000+ volunteers, and they were all ready to get to work. Including them during this Transition process and doing our best to keep them (and others) around after it ends can only strengthen the work that the County does as an institution.

I have high hopes but realistic expectations. I know very well that every recommendation made by the Charter Transition workgroups might be dismissed and thrown out by the newly elected council and executive. If that happens, bummer. It will be a blow to all of the volunteers who have worked on providing options to improve our county. The outcome I’m hoping for, whether or not the workgroup recommendations are accepted, is that both the County and its citizens realize that working together is better for everyone, and that efforts to provide more information to citizens and include them in the business of the County should become business as usual. This Transition process can, at the very least, be an exercise that lets citizens figure out how to interact with government and government interact with citizens.

When I first started working for the County in December 2006, there were talks about moving to the Ameritrust complex on East 9th Street. I had a vision of rebranding the County as “The New Cleveland Trust Company”. Now’s our chance to make that phrase do more than just sound catchy.

Disclaimer Time

This post is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, procedures or plans of Cuyahoga County, the Cuyahoga County Charter Transition Advisory Group, or the Public Engagement Workgroup.