Last week I spent two days in Asheville with School colleagues and our partners from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (affectionately known as “the Association”). We have partnered for many years to deliver one of the School’s most important courses—Essentials of County Government—an orientation program for newly-elected county commissioners.
Two years ago the Association’s Executive Director, Kevin Leonard, and I were in Asheville for the previous version of this course. One of Kevin’s concerns was that the Association’s professional staff was only marginally involved in delivering the course. He was right, and we both felt that the program overwhelmed the new commissioners with too much information and relied too much on lecture.
In 2018, both the School faculty and the staff of the Association agreed to take a fresh look at the curriculum, at the way we’ve been teaching this course for many years, and break it open. Kudos to everyone involved for their willingness to work incredibly hard to take a good course and make it much better.
We had a couple of objectives:
1) Newly elected officials need a lot of training, and they need it fast. At the same time, however, they can’t possibly absorb everything at one time. We needed to deliver the most important content in the most engaging way possible.
2) This is the first time that hundreds of important public officials across the state will encounter two of the most important resources available to them (the Association and the School). We need to make sure that they know that both of our organizations have talented people who are available to help them and their staff. They need to know about the type of help we can provide as well as how we are different from each other.
A team of faculty and staff (duly credited at the bottom of this blog post) met over the course of several months to co-design the new curriculum. They focused on the key things newly elected officials need to know right away. They also committed to move away from talking head-style presentations. Previous versions of the course were well received but often described as the proverbial drinking from a firehose. The team brainstormed lists of topics to cover, they listened carefully to one another, they wrote scripts together as a group, and most importantly, they achieved consensus.
Each session now includes opportunities for the attendees to engage with other commissioners and managers and share their questions and insights with the group. The team worked seamlessly to deliver the program. Partnering in this way is time-consuming but so important. I really admire the effort everyone put into revamping this course.
One of the biggest changes they made was to cover a lot of material through a mock board meeting. It’s exactly as it sounds. A bunch of “actors” (School and Association colleagues) sit on stage at the front of the room and pretend to be: a board chair, a vice chair, a newly elected commissioner, incumbent commissioners, a clerk, a manager, and a county attorney. They go through a typical board meeting, including rules of procedure, motion approvals, an economic development opportunity, and comments from angry citizens. They also complain about each other, text message each other behind the scenes, and pander to the public, which, of course, never happens in real life. It is done in an engaging and respectful way.
They freeze the theatrics from time to time—they turn to the audience and explain concepts, including how county commissioners should handle them. The audience was engaged; they participated, nodded solemnly in sympathy, cheered on the actors, and asked the best, most important questions.
That’s just one example of the improvements that were made, but really, each section of the two-day course has more audience participation than ever before. It’s not that the old way we delivered the course was bad. The question the design team asked was if the course could be improved. I heard lots of unsolicited praise from new commissioners. A representative comment from one commissioner: “This is so valuable. I’ve learned so much. It is going to make me a better commissioner. It is really going to help our community.”
Our faculty always strives to improve and wants to take advantage of opportunities to do better. And our partners are true partners. They expect this from us, they trust us, they want to be involved, and they are committed to good government. This is what I love about our work and it inspires me even after all these years.
We have one more installment of Essentials, this time in Greenville, and I look forward to meeting more new commissioners there. There will be another dramatic portrayal of a public meeting. I doubt that our “actors” will be honored at the upcoming Academy Awards, but I do want to offer my sincere gratitude to the following individuals for their first-rate work:
From the NCACC
From the School