MIDDLETOWN—The Orange County Legislature is breaking new ground in the way it manages county government. The county Legislature is participating in a pilot program, called the Collaborative Governing Project, that is expected to be implemented throughout New York state.
The county has contracted with the Orange County Dispute Resolution Center to run the Collaborative Governing Project through 2017. DRC Director Donna Ramlow oversees the program’s operation.
Ramlow and one of the original coaches in the program, Willa Freiband, explained how it works.
Freiband is an enthusiastic participant in the program. “I’m very invested in it and I’m going to stay with it because I think it’s an incredible, incredible opportunity for Orange County and for governments in general.”
County lawmakers may not have all the skills needed to be effective in government. “They come because there is something in their community they are trying to change,” Freiband said. “They also come without tools and skills to discuss those issues in a way that actually would give them a win.”
Chairman of the Legislature L. Stephen Brescia supports the program. “We’re getting more consensus and more buy-in.”
County legislator Michael Amo said people elected to the Legislature want to get things done for their constituents. The program gives legislators an important tool that is needed for an elected official—what Amo calls interest-based negotiation.
He gave an example of accidents at a crossroads. Constituents call for a stop sign, and their representative hears their concern. Interest-based negotiation asks legislators to focus on the interest of fewer accidents and discuss solutions from that angle and “It may or may not be a stoplight. It may be something else.”
Without the right skills, Freiband said newly minted county officials “become frustrated because they don’t see progress,” she said. “The gridlock we talk about in terms of parties on the national level is magnified by the fact that they are on a local level.”
The original idea came from a county resident who was involved in dispute resolution at the state level. Orange County resident Niki Rowe coordinates the program at the state level with Dr. Bernadette Poole-Tracy who has done training in the area. Rowe asked DRC to take the lead for the county pilot.
A key part of the skill set is what Ramlow calls “active listening.” The program teaches legislators to hear what a colleague is saying before jumping in, in other words, to be an active listener. “Active listening is a big part of the skills that we try to develop,” she said.
Legislators are coached to reframe a colleague’s position. Ramlow said this lets the colleague know they’ve been heard. “If they don’t feel heard, they just repeat what they’ve said—using different words or raising their voice. That’s a cycle. That doesn’t bring any kind of forward movement.”
Amo said the role of the coach is extremely valuable to the process. “What that means to me is that I know that I’ve got someone who is specifically trained in these collaborative governing skills that I can discuss issues with.” The coach helps with process, not solutions.
Amo said that discussions can become heated and he might not use the tools he’s learned to achieve consensus. He said he can talk it over with the coach later on—who sits through the meeting—to figure out how he might have handled it better.
Ramlow concurs. “It’s like having someone that they can just sound off on.” Coaches don’t give opinions; they provide the tools to their client to solve the problem. Rowe credits coaching for encouraging results. “It’s the coaching that really is the heart and soul of what we do,” she said.
Ramlow said the program gets spectacular results. She attended a budget committee meeting. “There was a lot of anger, talking over each other, interrupting each other,” she said.
After legislators received training for five months the environment changed dramatically. “What a difference,” Ramlow said. “They were aware that they might have something to say, but they held back until it was their turn.”
Legislators have noted that it’s a reminder just to see coaches observing on the sidelines. Remlow said, “It reminds them that they need to use the skills that they have been taught.”
The program is meant not only for legislators but for county administrators. County Executive Steven Neuhaus had all his department heads attend a day’s training similar to the legislators at SUNY Orange in Middletown.
Amo said the program has several benefits. Collaborative governing may mean government becomes more efficient and economical, with less litigation, according to Amo. “If you can figure out a way to find solutions, you are going to avoid the costly litigation that would follow if you couldn’t.”
Freiband said agendas are moving faster. Before the coaching, “I saw so much of this repetitive cycling of everyone around the table saying the same thing in their own words. Now, if the person leading that meeting simply reframes it, they don’t feel they have to say the same thing over and over again.”
Coaching requires open-mindedness. No personal agendas allowed, Freiband said. “This is not about problem solving,” she said. “It’s about skill building. It’s about personal development and helping someone else get the ‘aha!’ moment.”
Rowe sees this an extremely valuable program that can be implemented throughout the state. “We really needed to provide this to county officials across the state so that they could begin to work together in a process of making government what they want it to be, which is beneficial for the residents of their county.”
She said the program aims to take the stress out of the political process. On the state level, Rowe said the program can help make government more efficient, a goal of the governor. Amo said Gov. Cuomo wants counties to take a leadership role in efficient government.
The model was tested with officials from the New York State Association of Counties with very positive feedback and supported by the New York State Dispute Resolution Association. The model was developed from one created by Dr. Poole-Tracy. “We took her basic model, overlaid it, and came to Orange County and asked if they would be willing to partner with us in developing the model,” Rowe said.
To their credit, the Legislature said yes.
The model is also part an accredited training at Cornell’s Pelletier Institute for county officials. Rowe and Ramlow have high hopes for the program. Rowe said NYSDRA plans to have every county participate.
“I think the goal is just to bring rational discussion to governing. Every county has its own issues and everybody is there to try to make a difference. If that brings everybody down to a place where they can have good discourse—that’s the win,” Freiband said.
Like any innovative approach it is a program that is evolving. The model is constantly being tweaked from feedback and internal input. “Any time we see something work, we reinforce that. If we feel there is a better way to do it, we reconfigure it,” Freiband said.
Ramlow has great hopes for the program. The county signed a contract with DRC in December of 2015. Brescia said he would like to see more participation. “Overall, it’s working. It would be good to get almost 100 percent.”
The DRC is looking for more individuals who might serve as coaches. There are benefits for the coaches. Freiband said she has used her skills in her day-to-day life. “These skills are really transferable.” She said coaches become more confident after training.
The next training session is April 30. Once trained, each coach will work with only two legislators at a time. The entire program is run by volunteers.
Ramlow’s agency also reaches into Putnam, Ulster, and Sullivan counties, and she plans to use the model in their county legislatures. “I saw where it really is making a difference. We are very excited about this.”
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