Making neighborhoods better places to be

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Making neighborhoods better places to be

Han Myeong-hui seems like an ordinary housewife most of the day, but in fact she leads something of a double life. At least an hour each day Ms. Han, 38, goes to local public facilities in her neighborhood to secretly inspect their conditions.

Nobody knows Ms. Han is on assignment when she goes to her neighborhood's recreation and culture centers, called Residents' Houses. She gives the premises a once-over, sometimes a twice-over, to make sure everything is shipshape, and furtively sounds out the needs of the centers' users. The centers are operated by the residents themselves, and overseen by the local office of Seongdong, a district in eastern Seoul just north of the Han River.

Ms. Han volunteered to be a "secret inspector housewife" for Seongdong to check on the district's 20 recreation centers. The centers provide exercise equipment and activities and offer cultural classes. Ms. Han visits to make sure the equipment is functioning and the classes, such as those for aerobics or flower-arranging, are taught competently. Nobody besides the district officials, not even the neighborhood office staff or the class instructors, know what she's up to.

On this particular outing, she has stealthily jotted in her notebook "pulse sensor on treadmill needs replacement," "more diverse classes are needed," and "operating hours are too limited."

Ms. Han is part of a team of 40 housewives who inspect the centers and report their findings to the district office every month. "I have trouble finding the time to do this while still taking care of my three kids, but I thought it was worthwhile to make this neighborhood a better place to live." The system seems to have worked so far; the centers had been neglected and unpopular, but now they are filled with people and activities, and the attitudes of the staff have also improved.

In addition to Ms. Han's 40-woman team, another 50 Seongdong housewives work secretly to evaluate the services provided by the district and neighborhood civil officers. The two teams were formed by the district office last summer in response to complaints about the recreation centers and poor service provided by the civil servants.

"We got a surprisingly enthusiastic reaction from housewives when we suggested this system," explained Lee Jae-young at the general affairs division of the Seongdong office.

The results? At one recreation center, there used to be only enough exercise equipment for a few people to use at a time. A housewife recommended improvements, and the center was promptly furnished with more gear and the facilities were spruced up. At another center, free tutoring sessions were arranged for elementary and middle school students, taught by volunteers from Hanyang University. Libraries for youngsters have been either set up or improved at most of the centers. And women volunteers are even offering free hairstyling and beauty care.

Use of the centers is up more than 50 percent since the secret inspection system was instituted. And the district and neighborhood officials have had a dramatic change of attitude since the other secret housewives began to evaluate them. The evaluations are made randomly, and the officials are rated on various factors, like the type of greeting used, speed of speech, and tone of voice.

Because of its turnaround in administration, the Seongdong district office was recognized last November at a meeting of 70 local governments with the grand prize for effective management. The Local Autonomy Government Exposition was co-hosted by a department of Hanyang University and the civic group Civil Solidarity for Open Society under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs.

by Ahn Jang-won

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