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Interview with Arlington County’s New Resident Ombudsman

Arlington County government's offices at 2100 Clarendon BlvdLast month, Arlington County announced that it had appointed a new ombudsman for residents.

Robert Sharpe, who previously served as assistant director in Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services, now works out of the County Manager’s office with the title “Resident Ombudsman and Director, Constituent Services.”

Sharpe’s role is not to be confused with that of the county’s business ombudsman, who was appointed in 2014 and advocates on behalf of local businesses within the county government.

We asked Sharpe about the job and what he hopes to accomplish for Arlington residents.

ARLnow: What do you want to accomplish in your new position?

Sharpe: “I hope to advocate on behalf of the Arlington residents, in terms of how the county board interacts with the rest of the county. I want to try to increase efficiency, make everything move a little smoother.”

There are already options for residents to report potholes and maintenance issues, to express opinions to the County Board, etc. Why add this position if there’s already a mechanism for most kinds of complaints?

“The Resident Ombudsman is not a new position. It’s a twist on an existing constituent services position in the County Manager’s office. The position was largely internal previously and was not promoted as a resident resource.”

“The intent is to create another option. If I can free up the County Board’s time, they can focus on other things, I’m helping to increase efficiency. Sometimes the information is already out there, I want to make it easy to find.”

Could you speak out and publicly advocate for certain things to get done, as a newspaper ombudsman might, or is this mostly about getting things done internally?

“It’s more internal, I can’t see myself being critical in a public manner. If I get a resident complaint that I can solve, I don’t see a need to publicly make a statement.”

What local problems might you handle that aren’t otherwise being taken care of effectively now?

“We get a lot of complaints about things like utility providers. We try to work these issues out with, say, Washington Gas. Recently we had a complaint about a home being built in an untimely manner, we worked with the builder to solve this.”

“I’m also well-positioned to identify trends. I’m a big believer in continuous improvement. The most rewarding part of the job is seeing an individual resident complaint turn into a process improvement that benefits all residents.”

Are there cases where contacting you isn’t the most efficient way to take care of a problem?

“Residents with straightforward service requests or questions will get best results through resources like the A-Z Directory of Services or the Make a Service Request / Report a Problem [form], which is also available as a mobile app for iOS and Android.”

“The Resident Ombudsman role comes into play when residents don’t get good customer service or have trouble navigating County government. If someone hits  a roadblock, that’s where I come in.”

Any last thoughts?

“The one thing I would like to stress is that as a resident for 13 years, is that I have seen progress in the county government. The County Board has been very responsive.”

Sharpe be reached via email or at 703-228-1762.

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