Guest Post: Don’t Forget the Ground Game

By David Chace

You are in a rush for work, so you need to jog it. However, this means you need to beat the obstacle course outside. You need to weave through parked cars, ruts on the sidewalks and a lot of other people. The sidewalk abruptly ends at a turn in the road, so you need to walk next to oncoming cars. At the busy ‘T’ in the road (with no light or stop sign) drivers jostle for control and overrun the crosswalks. As you squeeze by, a driver carelessly honks in your face, piercing your eardrums. You get to the upturned sidewalk– it’s been this way for almost two months. You think of a public servant who operates with no accountability and doesn’t care enough to inspect the details of a construction plan, walk the beat, and call or fire construction teams when standards aren’t met.

As you enter work, you are miffed about the driver that honked in your ears, the defunct sidewalk project, and the authorities who let everyone down. You are a bit down on yourself because you don’t live and work in a better place. How might this influence your first meeting of the day? How might that first meeting influence your next? Imagine that someone has a carefree bikeride to work. How much better might they perform as the days add up to months? These are serious questions being asked by public policy experts in developed countries; they should be asked in Mongolia as well.

Subtle changes can impact our lives in important ways. In a study of elementary school students in Spain, an increase in the traffic-related pollutant, elemental carbon (EC) by just 0.7 micrograms per cubic meter predicted a 4.1 % lower rate in cognitive development per year (Sunyer, 2015). In other studies, an additional minute of commute time was associated with 1.3 minutes less sleep; and more obstructions during commutes were related to higher blood pressure, negative moods, and illnesses (Voulgaris, 2017; Novaco, 1992). The power of subtlety extends beyond daily commutes. In Mongolia, it is shown that 98.8 % of reproductive-age women are vitamin D deficient largely because Mongolian foods and milk aren’t fortified (Ganmaa, 2014).

Each of these issues have their own contexts and nuances. Potential solutions would involve specific, targeted interventions or tweeks to existing policies based on data-driven insights. For the sake of ease, let’s call these ‘ground game’ innovations. By ‘ground game’, I mean small, mundane things that influence our interactions with environments, technologies or public services. This could involve any public topic such as policing, national parks, or energy.

Ground game innovations can improve our health and economics, and sometimes, they can give us a sense of control over our lives and instil a little more trust in others. The road posts in the caption’s picture may seem simplistic; it might even seem chintzy and underscore the difficulties for road management in Ulaanbaatar. However, while seeing it for the first time I said, “Finally! Someone’s gotten it right”. I felt that my quality of life gained a few points and my community had more status and order.

I appreciate the frugality and functionality of these posts. I wish I knew which public officials or office conceived of the project. If could pull up a smartphone app, point my phone at the new walking path, see the elected officials and departments who deserve credit and ‘like’ the project, I would. If I could vote in Mongolia, I would take note of the public office for the next election.

Pictures of My Walk to Work

Continuing on the topic of experiences of pedestrians, I’ve observed some impressive and not-so-impressive public works on my own daily walk to work. Do any of them look familiar?

Some Other Common Bummers for Pedestrians:

  • Flooding, giant puddles and being splashed
  • Smoke and soot from tire repair shops or small power plants (especially in ger districts)
  • Loading and construction work blocking walkways
  • No give and take among pedestrians on crowded walkways
  • Bikers on sidewalks, walkers on bikelanes
  • Spit on walkways, especially next to places like Tse bar
  • Disgusting fumes on and around buses
  • A lack of maps and route information at bus stops
  • Despite NGO and government campaigns, still poor handicap accessibility.

What the Ground Game Means to Voters

Streetlights, crossing guards at schools, building codes for earthquakes… these are the marks of a functional government. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators conclude that ‘Government Effectiveness’—designed to measure quality of public management and services – is strongly correlated with ‘Control of Corruption’ (World Bank, 2010). Over a variety of studies, measures of corruption have correlated with road conditions, infrastructure, environmental management, vulnerability to disaster and even bad parking behaviors and traffic deaths (Williams, 2018; Ravi, 2009; Groskopf, 2016). If elected officials want to improve governance and perhaps even stamp out certain levels of corruption, the ground game may be the place to start.

I think most people intuitively agree with this. Our interactions with public spaces and public services are resonant. We draw on them when we think about the political system at large. In elections however, the ground game moves to the abstract as part of the ambiance. Candidates rarely talk about ground game solutions in specifics or as a basis of comparison with opponents. Why?

I think two factors are apparent. First, we don’t always know who to give credit to; and second, we don’t know how to assess the overall achievements of elected officials. It’s understandably difficult to trace the lines of accountability through multiple offices and perhaps even successive administrations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Perhaps politicians are under-promoting their successes as well. For example, I think former mayor of Ulaanbaatar, E Bat-Uul, created some novel and universally respected changes. His administration introduced a number of firsts such as the license plate law, traffic monitoring cameras, bus lanes, bike paths and racks, No Car Day and the UB Marathons. He also introduced new administrative units and procedures for urban mapping, earthquake preparedness and citizen oversight of local budgets. I think his personal emphasis on the ground game helped sprout new norms in civic life. Nonetheless, Bat-Uul lost his first and only election. Yes, it was a landslide that saw his party lose all but 9 seats in parliament, but his campaign slogans, “Let’s develop Ulaanbaatar more” and “5-point plan” didn’t do wonders. I would have appreciated messages like, “I made school yards safer” or “I paved all the upturned lands releasing dust into the air”. Instead, seeing billboards with “5-Point Plan” and no further information annoyed me.

We need to close the feedback loop on ground game policy with facts and dialogue. Ground game issues may never top traditional issues in national elections. However, if voters have intelligible, comparable data, I think they will get a little more attention at the levels they deserve. People would at least be able to point out when an administration’s ground game falls below the standards set by predecessors. Heck, we may even raise our standards to a point where newly elected officials can’t summarily replace experienced city managers, school directors and social workers for the benefit of party-boss patronage.

About David

David Chace served in Peace Corps Mongolia from 2011 to 2013 in Khentii province. He founded a humanitarian project called “Project MASC” which developed air quality health education, trained school teachers and district administrators, and delivered air pollution masks and air purifiers to children. David has lived in Mongolia for 8 years.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Change, City Planning, David Chace, eDemocracy, Governance, Public Policy, Social Change, Transportation, Ulaanbaatar. Bookmark the permalink.

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