Study of the Asheville City Government Corporate Academy, 2004

This project required students in the Western Carolina University Qualitative Research class to interview persons who participated in the 2004 Asheville City Government Corporate Academy.  We had two purposes.  First, this project gave us the opportunity to interview subjects in a qualitative study.  Second, we wanted to provide feedback to the City of Asheville that could be used to improve future outreach programs.


The totals of the numbers do not always add up to 25, which is the number of people interviewed.  That is for two main reasons.  (1) Certain pieces of data were not collected in the same form in all the interviews.  (2) The patterns of responses and reflections do not capture the total range of responses from all the study participants.     


We started each interview by asking the participants to provide personal/professional background information. 



Question 1:  Please tell me a little bit about yourself.


Twenty five participants were interviewed.  Fourteen were male and eleven were female. With the exception of two African-American participants, all were Caucasian.  Nineteen were middle aged, and two were under thirty.


Twenty-three study participants moved to Asheville from elsewhere, and one person was a native Ashevillian.  Ten interviewees have lived in Asheville for less than five years.  Eight have lived in Asheville more than ten years.  


Participants had varied careers and occupations.  The careers represented the most were: architects/builders (5), retirees (4), lawyers (3), engineers (2) and business owners (2). 


Several participants indicated that they were already involved in civic organizations.   Others indicated that they participated in the Academy to make connections and to network with others.  Several of them described themselves as environmentally conscious.


As a group the study participants were thoughtful, reflective, educated citizens.   They were friendly, and eager to respond to questions, and they were open about their experiences in the Corporate Academy. 



Question 2:  Please tell me the story behind how you came to participate in the Asheville City Corporate Academy (ACCA).


Six themes emerge about why Asheville residents enrolled in this program.    


Seven participants (7/25) enrolled as a result of reading about the program in the newspaper.   One said, “I was reading the …newspaper and saw an ad…I wanted to learn more about Asheville because I like the city and the area.”


Six people (6/25) enrolled in order to establish social connections.  One participant  acknowledged, “I wanted to get to know someone like me.”  


Five participants (5/25) enrolled because they sought further community involvement. One participant saw it as an opportunity to communicate the “save the trees” message.


For four citizens (4/25), the influence of friends and colleagues motivated them to enroll.  In one case, a manager urged her assistant to enroll in the academy. In another case, a supervisor urged a former subordinate to participate.


For a few participants, enrollment afforded the opportunity for a shared experience.  One participant described an experience with a friend in which he said, “…Hey, look at this.  I will do it if you will do it.” 


A final theme is that a few wanted to challenge city government.  One participant said, “Originally, I thought this would be a way to buck the system. . .”


Although the themes are different, the similarities are that citizens expressed a desire to make a difference, and to learn more about civic engagement and their community.  




Question # 3.  Think back to when you were leaving class sessions last fall.  How did you typically feel after a session was over?  What were some of the feelings you recall?  Tell me a little bit about those feelings.



Several themes emerged from participant responses.  One of the strongest themes centered on interactivity with other participants and opportunities for networking.  Ten (10/25) participants were disappointed because there was little opportunity for networking.  One participant #7 said, meetings were not structured to facilitate networking.”  Another said, the opportunity was not given to introduce ourselves the first night.”  A third participant, however, recognized that “later sessions did allow people to meet and interact.”  A few participants expressed the need for more interactivity and social time, even if building this time into the sessions lengthened the program.  One participant said, need more social time, not enough time to interact.”


Another strong theme related to food.  Ten participants (10/25) commented on either the quality of the food, or the benefits and drawbacks of providing food prior to each session.  Overall the participants indicated the meals were a benefit for the program.


One participant said,liked the food since I was coming straight from work.”  Another said, the meals were a great way to bond.”  A third said, loved the free food, but not meeting and eating at the same time.”


A third theme related to how comfort level.  Several participants mentioned their physical comfort.  One participant said, the physical space had been well-thought out.” 


Others mentioned their psychological/emotional comfort.  One participant remarked, “I felt comfortable and cared for.”  Another said she “felt very comfortable; group size was perfect.”   A third participant said, there was a greeter to guide you in the right direction.”  She named Lauren as the second greeter who made available materials and information for the night’s activities.


Examining these themes reveals that they were all related to the basic needs of humankind – food, comfort, and interaction with each other.  Participants were satisfied with the physical structure of the program, but they wanted more opportunities to interact.




Question 4:  Describe your view of city government before you participated in the academy.


This question was asked to help establish a theoretical baseline.  The data analysis revealed five major themes. 


The first major theme dealt with a strong mistrust of how city funds were allocated.  Four participants (4/25) indicated that they felt city government did not spend funds wisely, and that city officials were generally incompetent.  One participant said he “felt like there was way too much inefficiency.” This theme was further substantiated by another participant who indicated “My view was that the city was a power hungry and overaggressive group.”


Rather than state this directly, several participants expressed curiosity about the allocation of city funds.  One participant said, “I wanted to find out where our tax dollars are going.”


Though there were a few negative comments, three participants conversely felt that the city was being managed efficiently.  One participant said, “I generally trust the government and believe in it.”  Another said, “As a liberal Democrat I had positive feelings for and about city government.” 


Participants held both positive and negative views about city government.  More than half of them, however, also admitted that they did not know much about how the city was managed.  As a result, most of the participants indicated a genuine interest in learning more.  One participant said he sometimes wondered, “Why don’t they do things this way?”  Another said, “Before I participated in the academy, I only had a vague understanding of how the departments within the city of Asheville worked.”  



Question # 5: Describe your view of city government now that you have completed the academy.


This question asked about “value-added” -- how the participants views of city government changed, as a result of participating in the Corporate Academy.  Five themes emerged. 


The first theme was that participants (11/25) changed their attitude toward city government.   One participant said he was “not nearly as critical as he used to be of the city.”  Another said that, since completing the course, he “understands the process in Asheville and the management styles of the government better.”  A third participant summed up her feelings by saying that she had new-found respect for the fire chief and “the job that he has to do.” 


A second theme concerned participant level of satisfaction.  Six participants (6/25) realized that the city “can’t please everyone” all the time.  On participant said he “appreciates…the criticisms that are faced each day by city workers.”


A third theme addressed the professionalism of employees.  Four participants (4/25) commented on the professionalism of the presenters and others involved with the weekly sessions.  One participant said that there was “an emphasis on professional development. . . people are highly trained and then are expected to make decisions that need to be made.”  Another said, “These people are professional people who really try hard to do what is right.”  Even participants with a negative attitude toward city government mentioned the high level of professionalism demonstrated throughout the program.


A fourth theme was that several participants realized that the city is managed efficiently.  Four participants (4/25) mentioned that city government is running efficiently, even though a popular view among citizens is that government is inefficient.  One participant said that “the city is managed far more efficiently than I previously thought.”   Another said, the government seemed to be operating efficiently.”


A final theme concerned a lack of sufficient funding.  Three participants (3/25) thought that funding was an important issue.  One participant said, “The city needs more money.”  Another noted that, “City government works with limited funds.” 



Question #6:  Describe changes you may have made in the way you interact with city government.  Think about your involvement on councils, committees, as a volunteer, or in the neighborhood, in the workplace, or in the city as a whole.


The first theme concerned the opportunities for networking among participants.  Fifteen (15/25) said they would have preferred more networking.  They offered various reasons why they had not been able to network with each other.  A few said they had plans to do so in the future.  One participant said, “Like I said, some people in the class I definitely do need to get in touch with, but I haven’t.”   Another said, “Not very much . . . I see them around town and talk with some of them, but this is purely secondary.”


On the other hand, six participants (6/25) said they have networked with some of the others.  One said, “I made new friends and we continue to talk back and forth.”


A second theme concerned involvement with city government. A total of eleven participants (11/25) said there was no great change in their government interaction.  One participant said, “My views have not changed.” Another said, “(Involvement is) Pretty much the same as before.”  A third participant said, “I assume the goal of the program is to have people volunteer in city government. Some day I may do that, but I am too busy right now.”


Ten participants (10/25) felt they were more knowledgeable, more comfortable, and more vocal about city problems.  They indicated that now they would know where to go or how to approach a problem involving city government.  One participant said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a phone or send an email.”   Another said, “I have more attachment to city government as a result of the academy.”   A third participant said, “It is now easier to be an active citizen.”


A final theme was that a few participants took the class for personal gain.  One said, “I was looking for a way to plug in that would help a client or me.”


In conclusion, we found several themes concerning interaction with city government.  A few said they interact on a regular basis, but many of them wished they had more networking opportunities. 



Question 7:  If you were asked to select the next class of academy participants, what would you do? 


Three participants said the selection criteria were satisfactory. All the participants commented on specific elements of the criteria.  The need for greater diversity among participants was an overall theme.


Eleven participants (11/25) recognized the need for younger participants.  One participant said, “The age diversity especially needs to change. There was only one person in the group under 35.”   Another said, “Selecting several younger participants would be helpful. Recruit young people who have some free time and make young people feel included.  Aside from age, the class was pretty diverse, but it was heavy on professionals such as lawyers.”   A third participant said, “…it would be much more beneficial for the class to have younger individuals. This would create more opportunities for a highly energetic group to be able to use the information and become more involved in changing things.”


Racial diversity was mentioned by several participants.  One said, “Asheville has about 15% Blacks and I think if it were opened up to include the county, there would be more Blacks who might participate.”  Another participant suggested that diversity might be enhanced by advertising for the Academy in the local Spanish newspaper and churches where community leaders could be found.


A third theme was that the next corporate academy should include people who want to give something back to the community.  Three participants (3/25) suggested this in their comments.   One said, “…include people from non-profits, private sector businesses, and government.”   Another said the Academy should include people who are “active in the community and are looking to become more involved.  People who want to be in leadership positions should be selected for the next Corporate Academy.”   A third participant said the class should include “folks who care and are willing to participate in city functions.”


Concerning residency restrictions, five participants (5/25) said Asheville residents should be given priority.  Seven (7/25) said county residents should be included.   The reasons from this group are varied.  One participant said, “I think that it should also be county people.  This would help them understand how the city works and the concerns of the city, and it would help city people get a perspective from the county folks.”  Another said, “I think it was a good start to include only Asheville residents, but so much of what Asheville does impacts other Buncombe County residents.  I have mixed feelings about a residency requirement.  If this program is ongoing, I think at some point it should open to other interested citizens in the area.”


Several participants also felt that more advanced notice should be given before selecting the next class.  One participant said, “The biggest mistake was the lack of marketing…The city must reach out to community organizations.”  Another said, “I’d go to what I consider second tier people.  If we go to second tier people, they will find leadership.  I’ve been here just under ten years and I can predict who I will see in meetings.”   A third participant said, “You need more publicity with more advanced notice.”  


In conclusion, when selecting the next Corporate Academy, publicity should be enhanced and the public should have more advanced notice before selection.  The criteria should include considerations aimed at enrolling a more diverse class regarding race and age, enrolling people who want to give back to the community, and enrolling individuals with leadership potential.  



Question #8:  Pretend you are talking to your friends.  What would you say to them about the City Government Corporate Academy?


The reason for this last formal question was to gain a sense of how participants felt about the total experience. Participants who had a positive experience would share positive comments with friends; those who had negative experiences would share negative comments. 


Most responses were positive, but a few were negative. Four major themes emerged: (1) it was an informative learning experience, (2) participants would recommend participation by friends and colleagues, (3) it was time well spent, and (4) the pace was fast – maybe too fast at times.   


Fourteen participants (14/25) made reference to the first theme.  One participant said, it (the academy) was very helpful in understanding how Asheville works. It will also encourage participants to volunteer on the city commissions.”  Another participant said, “I was pleased and got a good bit out of it … the knowledge is worth it and it was always interesting.” A third participant said, “there is always more you can learn… to deepen your understanding. When you can understand the processes (of city government) you are a more informed citizen.” These participants said the academy provided plenty of informative, insightful information and also stated it was a good learning experience.  This was not surprising because the program showcased city departments, such as fire, water, and police.  


Over half of the participants said they would recommend the academy to a friend, even though the question did not ask that (Theme #2).  One participant said, “I have said it to many of my friends in the Democratic Party…You need to get involved in this program.”   Another participant said, “I would highly recommend it.”  A third participant said “I would encourage my friends to enroll in the academy. I highly recommend the academy.”  Finally, a fourth participant simply said she would recommend the class for most people if they show an interest.  Reporting that they would recommend the academy to a friend was a popular response to the question.


A third theme was that the Corporate Academy was an effective use of their personal time. Nine participants (9/25) directly or indirectly stated that this experience was “a good use of time.” One summed up the experience by stating, while not the most worthwhile experience, (you) should do it just for the information that you do get.”


Although this is not the most resounding endorsement, this statement illustrates that the program met a variety of participants needs and desires.  One participant summed up this theme with the statement “… it was a good use of my time. As little discretionary time as I have, that’s a good thing to say about anything.”


The fourth theme was that several participants felt there was not enough time for all the activities.  One said, “It was a little rushed. They were cramming a lot of information into a short period of time.” Several other participants noted the amount of information gained, possibly, the length, or breadth, of the program should be considered so as to eliminate or reduce the rushed nature of this program.                                                         


Participants appear to have enjoyed the Corporate Academy. Their responses indicate that it was an informative/educational experience, that it was worth the time they invested in the program, and that they would recommend it to a friend.  A few comments pointed out the intensity of the experience and the limited time to cover the vast amount of information. 



Question 9: Is there anything you would like to tell me about your Corporate Academy experience?


This last question was designed to afford the opportunity for interviewees to add their reflections, after they had been stimulated to think about their experiences.  Several commented on their fire truck experience, and one person saw this as an opportunity to take a political activist stand on a personal concern.  Few comments were negative, and many expressed pleasure with, and support for, the program and its continuation.


Two themes emerged from these comments.  The first was that many of the participants were pleased with the course.  Of the answers to this question, ten were positive toward the course, three were neutral and one was negative.  The following comments were gleaned from our notes:


“Extremely successful”

very much enjoyed the experience”

wonderful memories”


These speak highly of the city’s first attempt at teaching this class.


A second theme was that some participants encouraged the expansion of the program to include more depth and breadth.  Several expressed a desire for more information, requesting “increased intensity” and “more specifics and detail.”  


These statements conflict with the earlier comments about limiting the amount of information that some felt was “rushed” upon them, but it is important to realize both attitudes were present among those who participated in the first class. 


Another “desire for more” emerged in the desire to have more time to “network with the presenters and the participants” and more group interaction – “more time to ask and answer questions.”   One participant captured the essence of the overall positive nature and the desire for more information: “Talking with you (interviewer) helps bring back those wonderful memories.  I just wish they would have another class for us, maybe one that expands our knowledge about the city and the work that goes on unnoticed by the public. It was just a wonderful experience for me.”