Waiting My Turn in Mongolia
The lady at the Khan-Uul District Citizen’s Hall, a “Senior Specialist Citizen’s Representative,” was supposed to be showing us around the building. We had an appointment all set up and we were on time. She, however, was blabbing with some locals while we cooled our heels on hard chairs in the Hall for maybe half an hour. I was annoyed -- until I understood what was really happening -- but I am getting way ahead of the story.
The end of May and beginning of June I spent two weeks in Mongolia (joined by my wife, Christy). The main purpose of the trip was to do a bit of follow-up on the work done by our Mongolian colleague Chantsaldulam Jigjiddorj, during her four-month Community Solutions fellowship at the Alaska Center for Public Policy.
One of the main goals of Chantsal’s visit to Alaska was to learn about how transparency in government functions in the U.S. She could apply what she learned in the private non-profit organization where she worked in Ulaanbaatar, the Voter Education Center of the Women for Social Progress Movement.
One of the first places we went in Ulaanbaatar was the Citizens’ Hall of the local District Government Office. Citizens’ Halls are a new type of governmental unit established in the last couple of years precisely in order to make closer links between government and the people. This space is where citizens in the district can come to participate in debates and presentations about issues in the district, and can air grievances. It is also a place where the Voter Education Center makes presentations and conducts educational programs.
Chantsal explained to us as we were driving there that we were going to meet with Handa, who is a liaison between the public and the government. She would give us a tour of the entire district Government Office.
When we arrived, we found that Handa’s office is simply a desk located at the rear of the Citizen’s Hall -- completely accessible to anyone who walks in off the street. Handa was fully engaged in a lively discussion with four or five residents from the district airing grievances. They had come to the Citizens’ Hall, turned around some the chairs closest to Handa in order to face her desk at the back of the Hall, and commenced discussing their issues.
I don’t speak Mongolian so I do not know the nature of the issues being discussed, but I can say it was a very lively discussion that went on 20 minutes or half an hour after we entered the Hall. We were told simply that these were local district residents who had some complaints, and we needed to wait until the residents were satisfied.
I was a bit confused at first. I expected that Handa would quickly wrap this up so she could give the tour to the visiting guests from the U.S., but that is not what happened. What happened was that Handa completely ignored us until the last resident had her say and left the Citizens’ Hall, then she cheerfully greeted us and took us on the tour--no apology for the delay offered.
At first I was a bit chagrined about this. After all, we recently spent about 20 hours flying from Alaska to Mongolia, and we had an appointment with Handa at a certain time. However, the more I thought about it the more I began to appreciate the underlying values. This was really a powerful expression of a sense of commitment to openness in government and responsiveness to local citizens. Visiting dignitaries wait their turn -- residents come first. Maybe we in the U.S. could learn a few things from this example of emerging Mongolian commitment to openness in local government.
Lawrence D. Weiss, PhD, MS, is the Director of Programs at the Alaska Center for Public Policy. He recently traveled to Mongolia to meet with and learn from Chantsaldulam Jigjiddorg, with whom he collaborated during her four-month stay as a Community Solutions fellow. Community Solutions is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and is implemented by IREX.