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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Political Staff: Work-Life Bleed

Here's an interesting one - political staff getting in trouble for using tax-payer used phones for off-work purposes.  There's also the fact that they're spending time engaging in activities with their boss on a volunteer, after-work capacity.  Are they, in fact, getting paid more to back the Mayor up in his after-hours activities?  Are these cagey staffers intentionally deceiving the public by using public paid-for devices to do this non-work?
There's one big conceit that this argument is based on; that political staff have on and off hours and that anything they do in relation to their boss has to be related to work, not personal life.  It's a false notion that we would do well to discard.
Politics is not a nine-to-five job.  Politicians have to be ready and willing to go to events off hours and on weekends.  They take calls from reporters at their homes, speak to constituents when they're stopped on the street or even at church.  As the operational end of any political office, it's no different for political staff.  In fact, political work can be even more time-demanding on support staff.  If there is a crisis, or a question, the public/press/opposition is operating on a 24/7 cycle, as are politicians.  When information is needed, it's needed in real-time - and it's up to political staff to get it.
Additionally, part and parcel of political work is capacity building - knocking on doors, barbecues, speaking engagements and the like where politicians learn about the concerns of constituents and express their own policy solutions.  You can't have politics, after all, without the politicking.  If politicians are in the business to engage and be engaged with, why can't that apply to their teams?  Isn't it possible political staff engage in after-hours activities with their bosses because they are like-minded and want to?
This isn't to suggest that there isn't an element in politics that pressures staff to do the extra-curricular and chastises them if they don't.  That actually happens a lot, as does pressure to donate to the partisan cause as a requirement of being part of the team.  We'd be foolish to think, though, that there aren't staff who go above and beyond simply because they've been ordered to; I'd argue that the best political staff are the ones who are wholly committed to the vision of their boss/Party.
I am writing, of course, as a former political staffer that still dedicates a lot of my time to both the partisan cause as well as related social causes that I believe in.  In my previous life, I was completely and constantly tied to my taxpayer-paid for blackberry, but this worked both ways.  There were calls for family issues that I took on that phone, but I also was doing research and making calls on it from a hospital room within hours of my son's birth.  Politics wasn't a profession for me, it was a lifestyle. I know more than a few staffers that have to juggle up to three blackberries due to the varied nature of their work/lives - they almost need Batman-style utility belts to keep them all in order.
I don't think the average employer really cares if their team uses their office phone to make dinner plans with friends, or even posts pictures of family events on Facebook during office-hours.  That would be because the average employer probably knows their employees will equally be dedicating after-hours time to finishing reports or supporting the company charitable causes.  What matters to them is that the work gets done as effectively as possible under the associated time constraints, with as much value-add thrown in as manageable.  The reason we look so negatively on this kind of activity in politics is, frankly, because we view politics as dirty. Political folk are all the same, they are in it for the money, rich friends, power, whatever.  When it comes to backroom operators like staff, they are surely up to no good with the resources we pay for them to have. 
Along the same theme, there's a significant problem with the political game of gotcha.  Parties in opposition are always looking for ways to tear down the brand of their opponents by any means necessary, even hypocritical ones.  The "your staff was inappropriately using public resources" is a fun one.  It's all a ruse, though - you can't be in politics without life imitating work.  Using public fax machines to send out partisan material and the like is one thing - we wouldn't want public paper being used to print out reams of paper for some kid's homework, either.  Getting mad because a flat-rate mobile device is being used as a staffer's sole mode of communication, though, is a bit much.  Again, perma-access is what we want in 21st Century politics; are we going to criticize a staffer for sending a personal email on a publicly paid-for  blackberry during work hours, but turn a blind eye when they're using the same device to do work-related research from their home at 10 pm on a Sunday? 
Well, folks, I would suggest that we can't have it both ways.  If we want our politicians to be on and answerable about everything 24/7, then their staff need to exist in a permanent state of engagement, too.  If we are paying flat, corporate rates for mobile devices to ensure these staff who don't get overtime are available at all times, is it really such an awful thing to let them to use those flat-rate devices for personal use as well? 
The reality of work is this - the wall between personal and professional life is gone.  Particularly when it comes to cognitive labour, we want people to be dedicating a bit of themselves to job-related activities every waking moment.  With that being the case, something has got to give on the other end, too.  So long as they're not being irresponsible - which, as political representatives, staff can't ever afford to be without impacting their partisan brand - I would suggest there's no harm in using flat-rate devices for personal use as well.
If you have a problem with that, then stop picking on your Councillor, MPP or MP on Twitter or bugging them on the street.  It's our demand for more delivered faster that's flipping the system on its head in the first place.

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