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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 27 May 2015

Why Hacks Trump Debates

"Plus - no press, no trophy, just racing - the way I like it."
   - Lightening McQueen, Cars 2

In the evolving world of management practice, there's a saying that's gaining traction: "culture eats strategy for breakfast."  

Now, big business (like big politics) puts a premium on strategy - high-level, plan-centric, Machiavellian chess-playing.  Your resources - physical and human - are pieces on the board to be moved in tactical fashion to achieve strategic objectives.

Yet typically, strategic planning relies on certain assumptions which often are in correct.  It's as true in business as it is in war, and it's certainly the case with war room politics.  When the people at the top lay out their strategy and simply expect those they view as beneath them to follow orders, they're setting themselves up for trouble.

You could change the lives of millions and millions of Canadians – those who need the most help – for the better, Craig.
But we have to right act now – are you with us?

That little blurb is from a political party seeking funds (I think you can guess which one).  This party has a strategy in place and they're not deviating from it, yet what they don't have is a supporting culture to realize that strategy on the ground.

It's a lesson from the military that seems to be missed by the people doing strategic planning.  Politics refers to "the War Room" mentality, but they have never quite absorbed the concept of morale that is an integral part of successful martial planning and implementation.  

Is your plan transparent and clearly understood by your team?  Do your soldiers (and in politics, that means a lot of people who are volunteers, ie not paid or paid a pittance) feel like they have a skin in the game, or are do they feel like tools?  Do they believe the commanders understand front-line reality, or care about life on the ground?  Do the people have faith in their commanders?

Politics focuses on the win, to the exclusion of all else.  The theory is that you can work your troops to the ground, burn people out, whatever - they're all replaceable and everything is forgiven by a win. Winning - and the power forming government provides from that win - is all that matters.

Yet the purpose of government isn't to win, or to dictate - it's to govern.  In our country, in theory, the purpose of government and Parliament is to govern in democratic fashion, ensuring the needs of all people are met and opportunities abound for all.

This isn't happening, clearly.  The only people telling us otherwise are the people benefiting from the system as-is.  Canada's political culture is disaffected at bet; at the active partisan level, it's increasingly cut-throat and dictatorial.  The idea of culture is being ignored by most.

Not all, though.  Within the public service and even within some political offices, there is real recognition that the operations of government are not what they could be; civic engagement is low, resulting in less robust policy conversations; the public service is factionalized and in many cases demoralized - we're not where we could be and suffering for it.

As a result, the how might we question is creeping into the conversation; how might we change that culture?  How might we nurture innovation and cross-pollination within the public service, and across public services, and between the public service and the people? 

How might we foster a community of civic engagement that encourages inclusive solutions instead of stakeholder competition for slices of the funding/policy agenda pie?   What should a new Social Contract look like?

The government of Ontario has taken some interesting steps in this direction - there was Budget Talks, which solicited policy ideas from the public (and was massively popular, securing more contributions than the average by-election).  Now, the Ontario Open Data Directive is open for anyone to post their comments and contributions.  It's literally crowd-sourcing a government directive, which is a pretty cool way to give people skin in the game.

Which leads us into our title - Hacks vs. Debates.  Debates tend to be Socratic in nature; sides are supposed to presume they're right, the other guy is wrong, and argue to prove that such is the case.  A third party (in our case, voters) are supposed to weigh the pros and cons of the debate and decide which argument has the better case for it.  In politics, a big part of this has to do with leadership, character, personal traits that could be considered separate from the raw data each side presents.

Truth be told, though, when you have three main political parties, a hodge podge of stakeholder groups and various layers of pundits weighing in on strategy and tactics, the real purpose gets lost. 

Instead of trying to craft the best policy possible, we focus on who's the worst/least worst team and which plan hits more positive than negative points on a general scorecard.  We are voting for parties, or leaders, or specific policies, which is not much different than a three dollar donation.  

What we aren't doing is collectively understanding the challenges we case and co-designing solutions that reflect, as best as possible, the needs and opportunities of all.

Political parties put forth what they think are winning strategies and hammer them home. Stakeholder groups campaign for what they want/against what they don't want.  The big picture - the public interest, collectively - is lost.

Many are just fine with that, because they don't believe in the idea of public interest (they're more of the Jedem das Seine mentality).  The reality on the ground suggest their approach might not be the best one.

Whereas debates are competitive, hackathons (or Solutions Labs) are collaborative, inclusive; there's no pre-determined end, no winners and losers.  The goal is to find solutions that have legs, or that at least have iterative potential, then give them a try.  If the people are always engaged, then iteration happens much more rapidly, avoiding the four-year bounce-around that happens with our current system (and is in no small part why so many programs start then stop, wasting money, frustrating people and weakening structural integrity).

Which is why the smart policy people are stepping away from "are you with us" or "this is the plan" and taking on the role of facilitators.  

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