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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 6 August 2014

The Best Ideas Don't Have to Cost a Fortune

  1. It would be great if there was a readable source for us dealing with financial things for the first time

"I don't think about anything unless I'm paid to."

That gem was once uttered to me by a successful, respected, wealthy government relations consultant.  He meant it, too - this guy, like most government relations or public affairs or management consultant folk bill by the hour, or even by the 15 minute time increment.  

They're consultants - they are experts and their expertise costs money.  If you want some of their time, you have to pay for it.  

Since they are paid for their advice, advising is their focus.  They may offer added value to keep a contract - a bit of writing here, a few words in political friends' ears there - but by and large they are financially fixed on the idea of offering advice and moving on.

The problem is, their commitment is to the activities that bring them money.  They have no reason to stay engaged with a topic before or after they get paid to care about it.

Traditional high-priced consultants come at problems from the outside, offer their wisdom, write a report, collect their paycheque and move on.  Nowhere in this transaction is a need to map their consultation to reality; behavioural economics, design thinking, iterative process and community relationship-building aren't in their mandate.

So how many super-smart (or at least, super-successful) consultants have been paid top-dollar for reports or advice that goes into reports that are subsequently shelved?  How often do ideas implemented not stick, because they weren't grown from the ground-up?

We spend a lot of money - tax payer dollars, which are supposedly valuable - on advice that sounds nice but doesn't reflect the real word and won't be acted upon anyway.  The theory of transactional politics is that the advice offered is a consumable product that one stakeholder or another may decide to carry forward, while others may oppose it.  

Such was the case for the Drummond Report - lots of ideas were presented, with interest groups picking the ones that mattered to them and pushing for action/insisting that action not be taken.  Politicians were the ultimate recipients of all this lobbying activity and based their go-forward options on what they felt was in their best political fortunes, which theoretically maps to the biggest voices from the public.

That's how democracy works, right?  Everyone pursues their own interests and majority rules.

But we all know that isn't how it works - the loudest voice can come from the smallest groups, if they are well-funded.  I remember once sitting around a board-room table with a bunch of political organizers who talked about how they wanted a commission created and who they wanted to have on it, but how they would shape the recommendations regardless.  Their clients would then be well-positioned to get what they want, whether it was in the broader public interest or not.

That's not democracy - that's transactional politics.  Which is what we get when the smart people only care about what they're paid to care about.

This is why we have so many boring, unsexy or complex structural issues that never get addressed or, at best, get token solutions so that a government can't be accused of not caring.  In the worst possible scenario, transactional players actively want problems to persist so that they can keep getting paid to address them.  

Why on earth would I try to solve lead poisoning when I make my money curing it?  That'd be like putting myself out of business - or forcing myself to adapt.

This is why the best consultants aren't the people paid to think, but the people who live a given problem every day.  They have insight into how the problem impacts them on multiple levels, can walk policy-makers through their challenges and offer ideas that are grounded in their world, rather than imposed from above.

Far too often, public consultations is a PR exercise - something to keep the plebes happy, rather than an actual attempt to gain insight and ideas.  It's too bad, this, because there are a lot of great ideas brewing among the people policies are being designed to help.

Why?  It's easy - solving their problems isn't a think they get paid for, it's their life.  This is why the best, most passionate and most dedicated advocates for any cause are people with lived experience.  Think Clara Hughes.  Heck, go bigger and think Helen Keller, or the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.  They weren't motivated by money to change the world - they wanted to change the world so that they might equitably live in it.

As is often the case, what helps the most disenfranchised helps the rest of us.  The Labour Revolution was about sustainable living for hard-pressed employees; it ended up improving productivity, quality of life and spun off whole new industries.  Emancipation in all its forms has done the same thing - reduced poverty and crime, expanded the workforce, created new markets and brought new ideas to the table.

My favourite example, one we continually seem to forget - the more rights and equitable opportunity women get, the more peaceful, stable and successful our societies become.  You don't get that when the Alpha Males just focus on what they think matters, do you?

Society is becoming increasingly stratified into haves in competition and have-nots that serve as collateral damage.  The former tell the latter to suck it up, try harder, do something more to earn a spot at the big boy's table.  

Meanwhile, those without access, sophisticated training or a familiarity with jargon are telling us what they need to succeed.  Deemed inferior by the Alphas, these voices are too-often ignored, dismissed or ridiculed, which is an opportunity lost.

While the consultants independently mull what to do about youth disengagement, financial literacy, youth employment, declining voter turn-out and sluggish economic growth/a lack of innovation, we have people like @gofango, hinting at shared solutions for all these problems - solutions rooted in modern tools that she will understand far better than the seasoned vets who grew up with type-writers and see excessive ink as a way to demonstrate wealth and success.

It's time we flip our consultant model on its head and rethink how we define expertise.  We need fewer consultants who only think about what they're paid to and more who believe that the people have the answer and serve as conduits/translators for them.

Best part - the people who do something because they believe in it don't want a ton of money.  They need sustainable living, tools and the opportunity to own what they do.

Is this the way things work?  No.  It would be a new way for government to engage, bypassing the usual suspects they have relied on for so long.

Governments needn't worry, though - there are plenty of people on the front lines of society who would happily walk politicians through this process for the first time.

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