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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.

Monday 10 November 2014

Crie de Coeur for Culture Change in Politics

A powerful, insightful piece into the closed, messy world of politics that anyone who's worked in that space will recognize.
I picked the one quote above because Copps is absolutely right - we all tend to be too rash in judgment without taking the time to get informed.  I myself have been on both sides of this equation.  Empathy is not a human strong suit and in politics, it's often seen as a liability.
So, confession time to lay the scene appropriately - I am not and will not claim to be holier than anyone.  I have unintentionally crossed lines, misread cues and equally been left in vulnerable positions by people with power to impact my career.  I am also guilty of weighing heavy judgment on people under whom I did have some degree of authority and, in trying to put a cause or brand first, have done harm.
Unlike a Rob Ford, though, I'm not content to rest on my human failings as a permanent crutch; I aspire to be better.  It keeps me busy.
In general, though, politics isn't about being a better person - it's mostly about winning, a lot about knocking down the other guy and somewhere in the mix is something about public good.  The biggest problem with politics, and moreso as broadcast tools like television and especially social media have entered the fray, is an obsessive need to control the narrative.
Enter spin.  Spin isn't lying; it's about framing the truth.  As in, selecting which aspects of the truth get focus and wish don't.  Not telling the whole truth isn't the same thing as flat-out lying; it's more like half-lying.
Politics is like no other field of work out there.  Politicians spend much of their time away from home, playing roles that aren't clearly defined.  They have actually job descriptions, but they don't match the reality of the roles they play.  Even when they do a good job, they can expect to be criticized.  Job performance is, ultimately, measured by just one thing - the ability to win seats.  A retail politician who accomplishes nothing other than perpetual wins is a success, even if they fail their constituents (ie, Rob Ford).
Politicians are employers, although their loyalties are divided between parties, constituencies and their own ambitions.  Staff likewise have to find balance between serving their masters, serving the constituents who elected their masters, serving the political parties that have no mandate over their work but existential control of their careers.
And none of these folk receive training in the basics of their work - payroll, HR management, project management, facilitation, etc.
Many elected officials like it this way - a lack of structural clarity gives them more absolute control over their staff, a poor-practice reality enabled by parties that don't really care what happens in offices, so long as wins are achieved and boats aren't rocked. 
In many ways, politicians are like "the talent" - the really good ones have electric personalities, can sell a message with vigour and are masterful at raising funds and winning seats.  Big personalities tend to come with big liabilities, though - some of the most "effective" talent among politicians and staffers can be abusive, manipulative and cruel. 
These aren't great traits to have in a collaborative, cohesive workplace.  In fact, such personalities are toxic to high performance and effective work.  Politics isn't about collaboration, though - it's a blood sport.  Party players will attack each other; internally, backs are perpetually stabbed.  Schoolyard gossips reigns supreme.
All this before you get to the outside influences.  Everyone wants to curry favour or pick fights with politicians; some of the shrewd players will try to get their hooks into staff, winning inside operatives.  In addition to the pressure to be all things to all people, never mess up despite not having training to know what a good job looks like, politicians and their staff are constantly exposed to free booze, ego-stroking lobbyists, threatening advocates and angry constituents.  There is little praise in politics, unless blatantly strategic.
It's a tragic irony that the environment in which our public policy gets made is often among the most toxic workplaces there is.  How focused on doing policy right can all of these people be if so much of their day-to-day existence is focused on the perks and perils of life in politics?
Which is in no small part why we, the public, hate our politicians.  We see the bad behaviour, we recognize spin for what it is and become disgruntled.  It has never been the case that people are sheeple or that we have short memories; rather, it's that we see no alternative to dealing with the bad boys that swell the ranks of politics and, therefore, choose not to engage at all.
Political culture is toxic; politics attracts strong personalities and egos; citizens don't much pay attention regardless and when we offer criticism, it's rarely constructive.
This is not a system that can continue, uninterrupted, as it is, no matter what the successful, aggressive political people tell us.  They're like natural resource extractors, half-convincing themselves that things will never change. 
We are all of us standing on the burning platform.  Poor political choices and general civic disengagement are letting the toxicity of our Parliaments creep into every corner of our world.  The blatant racism we experienced in the recent municipal campaign is just a taste of what's to come, if something doesn't change.
It's no good getting mad at the aggressive alphas of politics - they win because we let them and succeed because, frankly, there's no alternative.
It's crucial to call attention to the abuses that happen within the system - sexual assaults, bullying, negligence, abuse of the public purse, etc. - but it's equally important to recognize tough reactive measures aren't going to stop bad behaviour, merely drive them underground.  The walls will become that much more opaque, exacerbating the problem.
Jian Ghomeshi became #ghomeshi because, for decades, no one intervened.  We can get made at him and demand justice, but what really matters is that we learn from how this happened with empathy (the understanding of emotion, not the enabling of it) and apply lessons across the board to prevent future Ghomeshis, and Patrick Brazeaus, and Mike Duffys and Dean del Mastros from happening.
This is the crie part - tell me if you've heard this refrain before.  The truth is that we don't know what we're doing.  We don't understand why we choose not to recognize the harm we often do.  Tough bosses who bully their employees often think they're doing them a favour; victims of harassment that don't take it are seen as disruptive to the culture instead of being victims or, worse, are applauded for standing up for themselves.
Remember the whole "women should golf" thing?  Ever heard the phrase "eat what you kill" in terms of business or "dog-eat-dog world" in relation to any sector?
It's laissez-faire culture; throw the kids in the deep end and reward the ones that survive, even if it's by forcing others under.  We have a culture that encourages aggressive competition, a focus on sales and those without power proving themselves to those with.  Yet we have a growing recognition of such power imbalances lending themselves towards abuse.
The two ends cannot hold.  If we want a survival-of-the-most-competitive, the very nature of that culture encourages abuses.  How else do you cull the weak?
Which is why, in my view, political culture keeps getting more and more toxic and will continue to do so while the status quo holds. 
We cannot expect the people within the system to be the sole progenitors of change; the toxicity of our political culture is like lead poisoning, but it's society as a whole that's put the lead in the pipe.
There is a desperate need for culture change in politics; through open government initiatives, there's even a movement to catalyze such change.  It cannot and will not happen in a climate of disaffection, bitterness and even rage; people on the inside rightly feel the need to protect themselves from the mob. 
We need to be more than a mob if we want change.  We have to be more than passive audiences or reactionary forces.
We cannot do this if we remain committed to passing judgment, placing blame and seeking vengeance.  Such does not move us forward.
There is a way to move out of our spiral down the drain of civility, but it cannot come without a deep recognition that the problem isn't external, but internal.
None of us are blame-free, nor are any of us strictly victims or perpetrators. 
Until we recognize this basic truth, none of us are free.

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