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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.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Community of Engagement


We live in interesting times.

A whole series of political/infrastructure issues that have received band-aid solutions for years and years are getting to the point where invasive surgery is needed.  Urban transit is in dire need of a structural fix that goes beyond one-off subway lines, requires buy-in from a host of different players and likely will involve a complete cultural revisitation of commutes and work.  For folk in rural Ontario, the appearance of urban bias is distinctly troubling - they want a focus on issues more relevant to them, ranging from service access to broadband and increased economic opportunities.

Healthcare costs continue to balloon; we want to pay less, but we also don't want a reduction in care. As the silver surge begins to crest, this is going to get even worse.  Our economy is stalled - there's enough evidence as to why this would be the case (we have a risk-adverse, weather-the-storm business culture that is refusing to invest in innovation, new ventures and new talent).

On top of all this, mistrust of politicians is at an all-time high (or low).  It seems every new leader comes in promising to be transparent, accountable and honest, then become an even worse caricature than the leader's they were elected to replace.  This is particularly true among youth, who are the future - they don't trust that politicians, or their elders have their interests at heart.  They don't have much hope for the future and are planning accordingly.

Then, there's the silo-based institutional challenge.  Government was designed for simpler times; like files stuffed in a drawer, new additions of service, administration and accounting have been piled beneath what was there before, creating a series of teetering towers of Ministries and Agencies that have insufficient structural supports/information flow between them.  Oh - and no metrics.

And of course, we have political culture operating much as political culture always does; whoever is in charge tries to control the narrative so as to bolster their chances for future electoral success while opposition parties look only to point out flaws, blow them up into scandals and pin absolutely everything on the government of the day.

The problem is, people in general increasingly know how the game and know what to look for. Impossibly puffed-up brands are quickly deflated.  Underselling and over-delivering always works well, but the over-delivering part has become uncommon, as the narrative keeps coming back to the big bad structural issues that are messy to fix, hard to sell and uncomfortable for everyone involved.  There are no big-thinking giants on the stage anymore - the problems we face have outgrown the usual suspects.  

If you're in politics, it's hard to see any way out.  It's easy to avoid the need for a way out - incrementalism has, after all, worked well in the past.  If you're comfortably ensconced in the clay layer at the middle of the bureaucracy - the folk that don't get cut, don't much rise above, but control the implementation of everything - your imperative for change is minimal, too.

At the front lines, though, people are increasingly agitating for change.  They don't know what it looks like, but they know it's long overdue.  Something has to give, they feel, and it ain't them - they've given enough.  Unions are girding for battle.  Community groups are hardening their hearts and sharpening their swords.  Political operators are picking their fights and driving their wedges.  The Private Sector is staying out of it, or strategically fighting only where their interests are at stake.  Winter has arrived.

But this isn't a war any one group can win - because the opponent isn't a nation that can be disarmed, a government that can be supplanted or a community that can be oppressed.  When the dust clears, we're still all going to be here with a system that increasingly serves none of us well.

You can't fight evolution.  You can't cut out overburdened infrastructure.  We, collectively, need to solve this the hard way.  It won't be tough Boss-leaders that lead this charge.  It may not even be political leaders that provide the vision and direction.  In a flat communications landscape, you never know where leaders will emerge from.

Which brings us back to consultations.  There are always lots of consultations going on, but they're not always what they sell themselves as - there's a wealth of difference between discuss, decide, do and decide, message and defend.  The latter has always been good enough; it isn't any more.

A couple of key consultations happening right now that involve the City and the Province on issues of structural importance and, thankfully, they're being done well.  Recruited teams have broken the third wall of the echo chamber and are engaging in meaningful, demonstrable ways with regular people.  It's not easy, this, building trust where none has cause to exist, bridging communication gaps and sifting through opinion to find actionable policy - but it's necessary.  Besides, for problem solvers, easy is boring.  They relish the challenge of building something new.

And that's the key difference right there.  You don't hear about it, but there is a nascent community of problem solvers with voices at all different levels that are putting shared solutions first.  These are senior bureaucrats, the odd political staffer and lots of first-tier civil servants, but there are also lots of community activists, professionals from various fields and social catalysts of all kinds.

This community doesn't have a name, but it is slowly piecing together the foundation of a more integrated and engaged society.  You'll be hearing more about this emerging group as they become better coordinated and as the need for them to step up grows more dire.

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