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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.

Friday 21 March 2014

Political Morale and the Value of a Pivot


The other night I got to listen in on a fascinating conversation between the Globe and Mail's Adam Radwanski and Alison Loat, founder of Samara.  As part of the chat, Radwanski talked about how reporters/columnists get their information from politicians and staff (yes, it goes well beyond the scum).  

Some reporters read much into body language and mine the depth of every pause and every word unsaid as well.  Others are all about the phone call.  Adam said that his preferred method was actual conversations instead of just inquiries; as we're social creatures, that often means a coffee or a lunch together.

Radwanski shared a bit about his relationship with staff in former Premier Dalton McGuinty's office and how it changed over time.  At the onset, he had a more open conversations with them - not that they would leak exclusives or reveal inappropriate details, but that he could suss their mind out a bit on what they were trying to accomplish with a particular message campaign or piece of legislation.

For obvious reasons, Radwanski found this valuable - he could really get a sense of the intent and goals behind government activity that might not always turn out as intended.  This intel would inform his stories, allowing him to do a political reporter's #2 job (after making money for their outlet) - facilitate the public's awareness of why and how their tax dollars are being spent and their society being supported.

There was a shift though, Radwanski said, between McGuinty's first class of staff and the one that followed.  The second bunch, he said, were less open, less willing to have conversations and began instead to use tricks to get stories they wanted - leaking to one outlet, putting them in competition with others, supposedly making them more likely to print favourable stories so as to get the inside scoop.

What resulted was a more confrontational relationship between press and press secretaries, more like what we see at the federal level where the press are clearly considered the enemy by political staff.  Stories became less favourable and intent was read as more cynical; without some background on the thought process, there really wasn't much else for reporters to go on.

I spent a bit of time within Liberal ranks over this period.  Some of the happiest days of my career were during the end of the first term when there was a real sense of being part of something special and other staff were almost more like family than colleagues.  I attribute this sense of team primarily to two men - my former boss Jim Brownell who may have been just a backbencher but for many of us was the heart and soul of the QP Liberal family and the Premier himself, Dalton McGuinty.

As part of Team Brownell, I spent a lot of time connecting with other staff, figuring out what they were working on, what we might be able to help them with and of course, seeing how all of this tied in to the projects Jim wanted to deliver for his riding (he had a very long list over two terms and delivered every single project, save one).  It was networking, team building, capacity building, but also humanizing.  I wanted to be human to these people I might otherwise only connect with via email or phone and I wanted to understand them as people as well.

More than a couple times when I was making rounds, I would run in to the Premier himself, just popping by offices to see how people were doing.  There are worse people to have your thunder taken away from than the Premier, but most importantly to me was how obvious it was that McGuinty actually understood the importance of connectivity.  

McGuinty did more than just the odd staff visit, which was huge - he also showed personal interest in the projects and accomplishments of staff in their lives beyond Queen's Park.  I got nice, hand-written letters from him when I won a short story award from the Toronto Star and at the birth of my first son. 

The Premier made time to invite my whole family into his office on a day when I'd arranged for my grandfather, a World War II vet and Holocaust survivor, to be recognized in the Legislature.  And that was just me, staffer to a backbencher.  

I know he did similiar things for other staff.  There's a great picture of him at the wedding of two of his own staff; he's reaching into the aisle to congratulate them as they leave the church and they, so in love and focused on each other, don't even realize they're ignoring their boss/Ontario's Premier.

While I was at Queen's Park, there were directions and decisions taking that I disagreed with (and was never afraid to share my thoughts on internally).  At the same time, I felt I knew the people making those choices and respected them enough to figure out why they'd made the choices they did and maybe how better iterations could be arrived at down the road.

When I left Queen's Park, I became like anyone else - an outsider looking in, albeit with more connections and understanding of how the place operated.  Regardless, I began to feel like some humanity was slipping away from the relationships I had there.  This was in no small part due to what I'd left Queen's Park for - a job in the private sector as a Government Relations Consultant, but I didn't want that to become a barrier.  

Perhaps naively, I thought (and still think) that people from different sectors don't need to be competitive and cagey - it's much more effective when we're open, pull together and focus on shared solutions for everyone.

As partisanship has gotten worse, though at both the provincial and federal level and from what I hear, communication with the press are much more based on messaging than relationship, I can't help feel as though it's not just me.  There's been a significant culture change, a calcifying of government that has maybe been exacerbated by toughening economic times.

From the inside, I hear (and this from staff in all Parties) two main trends: 

- staff who are functionally fixed on reciting the Party lines, and not in the cheeky, fun way we used to, but either out of fear of straying, a Koolaid-drinking belief in The Word or perhaps most sadly, a lack of trust in outsiders.  It's fascinating how closely this mirrors some the approaches I find among community residents when I work in priority neighbourhoods here in Toronto.

- the second trend is that they're lost.  They don't know who's really calling the shots in their Party, can't figure out how or why the plans (if there are bigger plans) are put together and really have no clue what role they're supposed to play.

Funny enough, this is the same culture of stagnation and confusion that has been identified as a major impediment to efficiency and adaptability within the Public Sector.  We can get mad at bureaucrats who make decent wages but don't seem to produce enough work as being lazy and go on a cutting spree, but that ignores the fundamental problem with the system - 

People within the bureaucracy often don't know how decisions are made, don't know how their work fits into the big picture and get no idea what or how their work gets used, if it gets used at all.

In the military, they recognize the importance of morale - it's #2, right after the mission.  In far too many other sectors and egregiously in politics, morale isn't even considered part of the question.  It's My Party Right or Wrong, right?

This is something we have lost as we focus increasingly on numbers - funds raised, program dollars spent, votes cast, etc.  Our entire system isn't designed to support Political Parties who aren't even mentioned in our constitution, nor an invisible, insatiable beast called The Economy.

Government is meant to support the people.  The Economy is meant to be the food that sustains society, which is a support system connecting and ideally empowering people.  

We've gotten this all backwards; partisanship has taken supremacy away from Parliament and The Economy is being trumped as more important than people.  Is it any wonder so many programs are missing their target or so many people are falling through the cracks?

A big part of why we've gotten things all screwy is that we've decided that relationships - committing sociology, as it were - is a bad thing.  We've been going the transaction, laissez-faire route; as a result, we have poor communication, increased hostility and competition and vitally, less sustainable results.

We think we know where we're going, but we're not sure.  But we no longer seem to care.

We've lost our way and our tracking back in circles.  Which is why now, more than any time in at least my life time, we need leaders with vision who understand the value of people.  

Not as props, not as clients or audiences to be messaged, but as as real people.

I believe we need to pivot our perspective.  I also believe that Open Government/Open Data is the frame that will allow us to do this.  

But I also know that as it becomes harder and harder for a select, siloed few to know what to do next, we're going to see the opacity of politics get worse before it gets better.  But it will get better, one way or another - the historical turn of the wheel teaches us that much.

The Peaceable Revolution is at hand.

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