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Lou Holtz was an annoying sports analyst but he was a great football coach and a superb motivational speaker.

Reflecting on “leadership” from the view of student-athletes, Holtz said young people are looking for three answers from a coach who is recruiting them: Are you committed to excellence? Can I trust you? Do you care about me?

These are the same questions that citizens ask of their government leaders. Cynicism and hostility about “politics as usual” among folks who normally give us the benefit of the doubt are being driven in part by a feeling that “no” is becoming the answer from their elected officials.

Voters want government to work, and to work for everyone, and not just a chosen few. People want to see evidence of a commitment to excellence, and when we fail, they attribute that to a lack of care, leading to the erosion of trust.

Many citizens believe that government institutions are breaking down. Considering the increasing number of calls I get from constituents to help with their troubles, some “quality improvement” is needed.

For that reason, I have decided to put my journalism education and experience as an investigative reporter to work as a state legislator. I don’t have the answers. However, in my new role as a member of the Government Oversight Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives, I will be asking more questions. Is state government committed to excellence? Can it be trusted to do the right thing? How can you tell that we care?

Government oversight – ensuring that public services are delivered effectively in a timely and accountable way, with the promised results – is a responsibility of all elected officials.

In Iowa, we have an ally in this quest. The Office of the Ombudsman is celebrating 50 years of service after being created at the urging of Governor Robert Ray. As an arm of the legislative branch, the Ombudsman independently investigated 4,499 complaints against agencies of state and local government, impartially and confidentially. The office attempts to resolve problems when an agency has acted unlawfully, unreasonably or unfairly, or has made a mistake.

I often refer citizens to this office when they think government is not working. Usually, the Ombudsman gets to the bottom of the cases they accept. When problems with “the system” are identified, the Ombudsman can recommend policy improvements to agencies or approach the Legislature for changes in the law.

In her 2020 report, Kristie Hirschman – the current state ombudsman – reflected on the history of the office. She also summarized the challenges government has faced during the pandemic and even recognized times when state employees have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

The Ombudsman also issued two special reports identifying major lapses by the Department of Human Services in the deaths of two Iowa youth. Hirschman has found on numerous occasions that many state agencies fall short because they are overworked and underfunded, problems that only the legislature and governor can solve.

Every elected official can engage in fact-finding, identify problems and propose changes that will make a difference for Iowans.

Here are some areas where we can do better that I plan to explore in the months ahead:

  • In the wake of the pandemic, is our public health system up to the job of protecting Iowans?
  • Is Iowa doing its part to safeguard our water and other natural resources?
  • Do the actions of state and local government help produce economic, social and racial justice?
  • Can our senior citizens, youth and vulnerable citizens trust us to care for them?
  • Are public bodies acting openly and transparently in ways that citizens can easily participate?

If all 150 state legislators take on just one challenge with a commitment to excellence, we can show that we care and rebuild trust in a government that works for everyone. What do you think? Let me know: [email protected],iowa.gov.

Author: Chuck Isenhart