Notes from an Internship: Part V

It’s everyone’s favorite quadrennial pastime: election season! Seriously, we’re more than a year away from the 2016 Presidential Election, but practically every major news outlet is following these candidates as if it were tomorrow. This year, as in many others, I’ve been hearing a recurring theme: every candidate is an outsider. I remain skeptical as to whether most of these candidates have actually managed to maintain that perspective, but nevertheless, there is substance behind why they’re saying it.

Leaders in government should understand the challenges faced by their constituents, and that’s no less true for presidents as it is for Town of Marana staff. This week, I’ve spent some time learning more about those perspectives and discovering how to solicit them more frequently.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I’m working to create a mentorship program for Marana business owners to share their expertise with other local entrepreneurs. This week, I’ve had several meetings with many of them to ask: How should we set up this program? Rather than designing a program and asking people to sign up, we want to make sure that whatever we implement is user-friendly and meets a clear need.

When I started sketching how this would look, I imagined the Town acting as middle man between the mentors and protégés, but the people I spoke with pointed out that our office might become a bottleneck, preventing a seamless connection between the two sides. Perhaps, they suggested, it makes more sense to allow information to flow directly from requester to mentor, with the Town acting as an overseer to ensure smooth operation and troubleshoot issues as they arise. We’re not yet ready to roll out this initiative, but hearing the feedback of potential users will surely better inform the final result.

Seeking citizen feedback on one specific program is great, but it is a far cry from acquiring a broad understanding of community needs. In the past, Marana has mailed out lengthy (and costly) citizen surveys to take the pulse of the Town. It’s great to have that information, but inevitably, such a large project can only happen occasionally, meaning the Town is not receiving the timely feedback it needs.

An on-going web survey, on the other hand, has the potential to provide a constant barometer of public opinion. What could be the downside of that? Well, not everyone fills out web surveys. If we rely on those responses alone, we’ll leave many groups in our community voiceless. Clearly there must be a balance between frequent responses and more in-depth, Town-wide feedback. In many ways, it’s a trade-off between quantity and quality, and I hope by engaging in this process we can derive valuable information from both ends of the spectrum.

In my first public policy class in college, almost 10 years ago, we read a case study about a government initiative in London. The city faced a problem with traffic, and wanted to resolve it by creating variable rate tolls that would change based on the severity of congestion. During the proposal and early implementation stages, the public hated the idea. After all, no one wants to pay extra money just to drive to work. A year later, though, public sentiment had entirely shifted. As drivers encountered fewer traffic jams and experienced much shorter commutes, they began to appreciate the now obvious benefits of the program. The lesson? Sometimes, public opinion doesn’t know best. Government employees have, after all, studied government extensively, and usually know how it works. Public opinion is simultaneously both critically important and potentially deceiving, and I’m glad for the chance now to feel my way through this process.

Chris Saunders is a Marvin Andrews Scholar who is interning with the Town this summer. He is writing weekly entries for Marana 365 through the end of August.