Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Do I Expect?

I just returned from reading Eric Alagan's post, "Root Cause," which left me thinking about my expectations of government.  I believe we must have expectations and that we must set our expectations fairly high in order to improve.  By "high," I do not mean unreasonable.  I do mean, though, that we should always be striving to be at least one level up from where we are now. 

Now that I have used the word "level," I suppose I'm committed to define it, so let's use citizen satisfaction surveys as one benchmark.  If citizens are moderately pleased with government and how that government treats them, for example, then government should strive to improve services and thus its image until constituents feel they are pleased with the customer service they pay for and receive.  Once results show people are pleased, government should strive to have them highly pleased, etc.  This assessment of satisfaction must be done at every level of government, in every agency and take into account everyone's perspectives, including those of employees who might also be constituents.  It is not a conflict of interest to have government employees rate the effectiveness and their own satisfaction of the government that necessarily serves them, too.

Having set these parameters, I return to my own expectations and will address local government only (state and federal being far more complicated).  I will start at the top, the place where most problems begin, and by the top, I mean the Board of County Supervisors.  As a whole, I view the BOCS as an entity of falsehood rife with politics and closed-door deals.  Citizens Time at BOCS meetings is basically a joke, as the BOCS makes up its mind before citizens even have a chance to speak, meaning speaking or even writing letters makes little to no difference in the decisions the BOCS makes.  I'm not saying citizens should not speak--in fact, just the opposite.  More citizens should speak about their issues but demand the respect and consideration they deserve as taxpayers.  More citizens should say, "The buck stops here." 

The BOCS has no right to make decisions based on a minority, based on prejudices, based on lobbyists' and party support, etc.  The BOCS should be working for we the people, not them, the ones with money and power, which is what I think happens, based on my observations and albeit limited, direct interactions.  But let's face it--most citizens have limited interactions with the BOCS.  The BOCS sits up at the dais like a jury, and not of our peers.  Again, I am talking about the BOCS as a governing body representing our county government.  Individual members of the BOCS might have good intentions and even act responsibly, ethically and respectfully, but their entity ends up operating in careless, self-serving group-think, something that only brave members can shut down, and even then, those members lose the battle. Yes, I expect more than that, which I don't think is unreasonable.  The BOCS seems to promote the top-down style of government, meaning by the time their decisions reach us, the residents, we have little to no power.  It starts with the Chair and infects the rest of the Board and local government.

Within local government, the decisions made from the top affect every agency and individual, either through the attitude passed down from the Board and/or budget restrictions, from human services to safety to education to environmental organizations.  What the BOCS does can influence the way even the lowest level employee views his/her job and effectiveness, and I don't think the BOCS acknowledges this or even cares.  The attitude seems to be, "It's their job to do what we say, smile about it and serve the public," even in the face of budget cuts and unfunded mandates.  The hypocrisy and lack of ethics is obvious, as is once again, the disrespect for the common folk.  Make no mistake--the BOCS has set up not only a bureaucracy but an aristocracy.

These are pretty strong allegations, aren't they?  Yet, they are valid, and the proof is first, that local government appears to be haphazard, operating in a miasma of miscommunication or no communication between agencies.  If the BOCS were to work and live in the frontlines, they would know this and perhaps do a better job. Unfortunately, most of them will never take that risk.  I dare the Chair of the BOCS to spend a couple of days in jail.  I dare members spend a weekend in a shelter or even better, a tent, or try living on food stamps while applying for jobs that are not there.  I dare them to depend on a low-cost healthcare clinic the next time they are seriously ill.  I dare them to work a few days in each agency, from the lowest level to the highest, just to see how their current policy affects the public.  Have the BOCS answer the phones for a couple of days.  Have them teach in a classroom.  Have them attend schools that serve low income communities.  I would even dare to say that one of the criteria for becoming a member of the BOCS should be directly experiencing the lives of the most vulnerable.

Is this raising the bar too high?  Most of them would say yes.  Most of them would say, "You try doing OUR jobs," to which I would say, "I'm pretty busy caring for a family and making ends meet under your rule while you are off being lawyers or whatever.  I'm sure you can more easily take some time off than I can, but if you want to give me a few days of your personal salary, I'd be happy to sit in for you.  But don't expect me to keep quiet about the experience."

This attitude of mine is what gets me in trouble, gets me labeled as a renegade who brings on her own problems, as a nut, as an anxiety-ridden, overly vigilant time waster.  It's easy to dismiss someone like me, someone who comes right out and says things like, "Hey, I suffer from depression and anxiety."  The BOCS would never admit to any similar struggles because it might jeopardize their positions and they might have their opinions dismissed as invalid.  Who wants to be someone like me, after all?

What it all comes down to is this: ordinary citizens who are not politically connected or who do not agree with the way the BOCS operates are not only ostracized from decision making but from entire communities made up of those who hold even a remote bit of power.  That's a lot of isolation and a lot of disempowerment.  And that's a lot of negativity to pass off on citizens and employees.

It's not mandates that should start at the top. It's not power or wealth, either.  It's responsibility and respect, and I would argue that's what our BOCS is missing.     
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