Government Serving the Customer HOWARD COUNTY

April 20, 1993

Howard County government set up shop this past weekend at the Columbia Mall. The idea was to bring the local bureaucracy closer to the people. But lest anyone think that Howard officials deserve a commendation for a most effective original idea, think again. The Discover County Government Expo, four years in the running, is actually the offspring of the National Association of Counties.

Whether Charles Ecker or Elizabeth Bobo had won election in 1990, the expo stood a good chance of occurring anyway.

That is not to say that county officials don't deserve some credit for the weekend event. Although the expo began in 1990, it skipped 1992, when officials decided that belt-tightening made it expendable. So, the decision to renew the effort should be viewed as a positive move.

Few things could be more consistent with the open-door policy that Mr. Ecker has attempted to foster within county government. The county executive took his place at the mall in a make-shift office, where a sign posted outside read, "No appointment necessary. Come right in."

The entire affair was, indeed, a gimmick, although it is the kind of gimmick we would like to see more of. Other counties have curtailed efforts that can be best described as customer service. Such cuts may be fiscally expedient, but are also public relations errors.

In spite of budget cutbacks, officials in Howard have taken steps well beyond their expo to improve public access to county government. Among the efforts are a stream-lined building permit process for residents seeking minor approvals on such changes as backyard decks and room additions. Officials have also added voice mail to several departments, from which standard information can be dispensed more efficiently.

And next month, officials hope to institute a standard complaint form so that even when a resident calls the wrong county office, his or her complaint will be documented and action can be taken.

All of these things suggest a county government that is trying to push the notion of service beyond style to substance. Restoring the faith that so many have lost in their local governments requires a host of efforts be made to open the doors of officialdom.

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