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Building Trust and Capacity through Community-Based Partnerships in Montgomery County, Maryland

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Deborah L. Trent
February 28, 2019

During his first term as Montgomery County Executive, one of the ways Isiah (Ike) Leggett addressed the needs of an increasingly diverse population was by creating the Office of Community Partnerships (OCP). OCP’s mission is, “Strengthening relationships between the Montgomery County government and the residents it serves, with special focus on underserved and emerging communities and our neighbors in need.” By the time the 2010 census confirmed that Montgomery County no longer had a racial or ethnic majority, CE Leggett and OCP director Bruce Adams had seeded ethnic and faith advisory groups, an immigrant resource center and sister cities that were becoming effective platforms for cross-cultural dialogue, problem-solving and understanding.

Toward the end of 2018, Adams left office. In his last e-newsletter column, Adams wrote that the citizen engagement and voluntarism encouraged throughout the county refute Robert Putnam’s 2000 thesis in Bowling Alone. This thesis stated that increased societal diversity often reduces trust among neighborhoods and toward government. As in Feldstein and Cohen’s 2004 publication, Better Together, OCP is an example of mediating cost-effective community partnerships that improve quality of life and work.

The OCP’s Middle Eastern American Advisory Group (AG) and other volunteer AGs are participatory, inclusive spaces for informal dialogue, deliberating problems and policy and building a welcoming community. AG members meet several times per year with the County Executive and other local officials – both elected and in the civil service. Their collaborative exchanges of multi-cultural perspectives inform budgetary decisionmaking on programs from affordable housing to small business development. They deepen government and private sector connections to each AG’s sub-communities. Their personal and professional networks increase potential for creative approaches to service delivery, e.g., meeting county goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through technology already used abroad.

Collaborative governance, including through community partnerships, reduces power distance. Power distance is Geert Hofstede’s measure of a citizen’s resignation to their political weakness in the face of government officials’ political strength. Reducing this distance and building trust and governmental capacity happens through relational, participatory communication with citizen leaders representing diverse ethnic cultures as well as urban-to-rural locales and religious groups. Montgomery County community partnerships offer residents, who once experienced alienating power distance in their heritage countries, opportunities to interact and contribute in a less patronizing, more mutually respectful low-power-distance context. At the same time, OCP convenings afford county officials policy insights and on-the-job cross-cultural competency training.

In November 2018, county residents elected Marc Elrich to succeed Ike Leggett as county executive. Signaling his intention to continue Leggett’s commitment to government-citizen-private sector partnering, CE Elrich has emphasized racial and gender equity. He first directed the OCP to convene 8 public listening sessions; hundreds of residents attended across the county. He also appointed veteran OCP staffer Diane Vu as the new OCP director. Advisory group members both encouraged participation among their sub-communities and showed up themselves to raise concerns. For example, hate crimes against Palestinian and other ethnic groups require improved educational and law enforcement programs. AG members requested individual meetings with the CE, and he responded by holding dozens of small-group discussions. This information-sharing provides context for the county’s strategic plan and public budget forums, in progress at this writing. Health, environment, safety, education, economic development and transportation needs compete with a balanced budget. One AG chair has pointed out that members should be engaged in the upcoming campaign to heighten awareness of the benefits from participating in the 2020 United States census.

OCP AGs organize cultural and educational programs as well as professional networking events. Raising most of the funding, the groups hold annual heritage events. They sponsor scholarships for youth to attend college and charity events in response to humanitarian crises. Five sister city partnerships–in China, El Salvador, Ethiopia, India, and South Korea—have emerged from their transnational advocacy, promoting tourism and other private initiatives. The Middle Eastern American Advisory Group recently sponsored a music event at a local museum. It also frequently mounts public library displays about the region and a MENA country exhibit at the county’s annual world festival. In addition, it has proposed an international training project.

Practical political leaders listen to and engage citizens inclusively, encouraging information-sharing and cost-effective collaborationCitizens appreciate opportunities to be heard and contribute to good government. Community and other public-private partnerships open multi-directional communication channels for administering mutual as well as divergent interests and conflicts. Relational, respectful partnering fosters creative problem-solving, innovation and trust in government. It is a process we will continue to turn to as society diversifies at the local and global level.

Author:Author: Deborah L. Trent, independent consultant and chair of ASPA’s Section on Effective and Sound Administration in the Middle East and the Montgomery County, Maryland Middle Eastern American Advisory Group. [email protected]

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