One of the ways that Seoul humanizes government is to increase personal interactions with the mayor. Under a program called ‘Mobile Mayoral Office,’ Mayor Won Soon Park leaves the mayor’s residence to stay among local residents for weeks at a time. In late summer 2018, he lived in an underdeveloped northern district for a month, capping his stay with the announcement of a major investment in that region of the city. On a smaller scale, any resident can apply to meet one-on-one with Park as part of a ‘Weekend Date with the Mayor’ initiative. The metro administration views these programs not only as public relations but as yet another way to listen to residents. Applications for weekend dates are routed to appropriate departments if they identify a discrete issue to be solved. And the mayor aims to come back from each Mobile Mayoral Office visit with a new idea or program related to what he learned in the local district.
Many residents experience government as a soulless bureaucracy (enforcing rules, requiring endless paperwork) or worse (actively preying on vulnerable citizens.) This undermines citizen trust and participation, which makes government less effective at delivering services, fueling a vicious cycle.
How Did They Do It?
“Citizens really want to meet the mayor, but he’s really busy,” one metro government official said. “So we decided to create opportunities.”
The Mobile Mayoral Office (MMO) is a sort of policy ‘sprint’ that puts city leaders in physical proximity to a problem or a neighborhood in order to understand issues better and identify creative solutions. It was born in 2012 because Mayor Park Won-soon wanted to understand why 618 publicly owned apartments in the EunPyeong New Town development were sitting unsold, weighing down the city’s books. He relocated his office to one of these unsold apartments for 10 days, hearing from residents about the site’s shortcomings. The city collected 146 public suggestions (through direct contact as well as Policy by Listening Forums and social media) and established a task force that sold the available apartments within 70 days.
The city has run two types of MMOs: (1) ad hoc, issue-based MMOs to address acute problems, and (2) regularly scheduled MMOs in each borough. They typically include a briefing by the local district officials, visits to related places, meetings with residents and an internal working-team meeting to create an action plan. In some cases, the mayor has presented the proposed action plan in an open town-hall setting (with online broadcast of proceedings) and established a governance committee for follow-up and monitoring.
MMO is intended to break up logjams—whether caused by lack of information, unanticipated problems, social conflict, or bureaucratic silos—and get projects moving again with clear next steps and resources. It also provides an opportunity for the Seoul Metropolitan Government to collaborate more closely with the local district governments.
“Weekend Date with the Mayor” was also launched in 2012. Citizens and civic groups can apply through Eungdapso (the one-stop online shop for citizens to submit issues and complaints), the city’s 120 Dasan Call center, or in person at City Hall. The city prioritizes issues that are socially relevant and that impact residents collectively. The meeting is typically held on a Saturday, at a city office or a location requested by the applicant(s), and relevant metro officials may accompany the mayor to provide issue-area expertise.
How Is It Going?
In late summer 2018, Mayor Park spent a month living in Samyang-dong, a village in northern Seoul, to better understand the development needs of the region. As press accounts frequently noted, Park stayed in a modest Ok-tap-bang (translated literally, a ‘room on the rooftop’) during a record summer heat wave.
After his stay, he pledged to invest USD $893 million to address regional inequality and prioritize the development of northern Seoul. This includes relocating a number of government offices to northern Seoul, and establishing four new metro lines along with day care centers, a hospital, school gyms, education entities, and more.
- Authenticity as a key ingredient. Some critics dismiss these outreach initiatives as mere publicity stunts. Certainly, his August 2018 stay in a ‘humble rooftop shack’ attracted a lot of media coverage. But in Park’s case, getting out and listening to citizens largely reads as authentic because it is consistent with his background as a former civic activist and his campaign message of re-orienting government toward citizens.