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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 17 January 2014

The Political Prisoner's Dilemma A Social Experiment In Negative Voting

As I was shoveling the driveway this morning, my thoughts turned to the upcoming, extended election season and the tendencies of people to vote against, not for.  It's a theme that is endorsed and reinforced by Political Parties themselves - the main opposition will be bad for the country and a vote for any other Party counts as a vote for that dreaded opposition.  At the same time, "kick the bums out" is a theme the Opposition will chime in with, like clockwork.

But we don't register votes against Parties - only for them through their candidates.  As such, any Party that pulls off a majority of votes (no matter how small a percentage of potential voters that may be) will claim to have a solid mandate from the people to do whatever it is they said they would do.

So, as I scooped snow, I started thinking about how votes could properly reflect voting intentions and give a true appraisal of the state of our democracy and the faith placed in Parties.

Here's what I came up with - hack away at will.

What if ballots came with two columns - one, as per usual, to vote for the candidate (and Party) you want, but in addition, a column to register a vote against, strictly oriented towards Parties?  

It could look a bit like this:

                         +                                                -
                For/Pour                                  Against/Contre

                          Candidate, A                             Conservative Party
                          Conservative Party

                          Candidate, B                             Liberal Party
                          Liberal Party

                          Candidate, C                             New Democratic Party
                          New Democratic Party

                          Candidate, D                             Other Party
                          Other Party

The standard rules around valid/spoiled ballots would count, except:

     - You could leave one column blank; so long as the other was marked appropriately, the ballot 
        would still count

     - If you fill out both columns appropriately, both tallies would be added to the final score of the 
       candidate of the Party marked

Any appropriate mark in the plus column would register as a vote given to the candidate/Party indicated; any appropriate mark in the negative column would  register as a vote taken away from the Party indicated.

So, let's say you really liked Candidate A and wanted to register a vote for them, but couldn't stand his Party; you'd put a mark in the plus column next to Candidate A and another in the negative column next to Conservative Party.  The total would look like this:

                          Candidate A (Con):     +1                    Con:    -1           Total:   0
                          Candidate B (Lib):         0                    Lib:      0                         0
                          Candidate C (NDP):      0                    NDP:    0                         0

In effect, the negative vote would cancel out the impact of the positive one, but the voter would have been able to differentiate between what the candidate they liked and the Party they didn't.  At the end of the day this would still be a vote lost for that candidate, though, meaning extra pressure on said candidate to hold their Party and its policies to account.

If the voter liked both Candidate A and the Conservative Party but had no particular dislike of any opposition, he would check off  Candidate A in the first column only, registering one vote for his Candidate A and the Cons.

However, if the voter particularly disliked the Liberals and didn't want to see them in power, they could record their vote like this:

                          Candidate A (Con):      +1                   Con:      0           Total:   +1
                          Candidate B (Lib):         0                    Lib:      -1                         -1
                          Candidate C (NDP):      0                    NDP:     0                          0

This vote would register as a gain to Candidate A's overall tally, but one point away from Candidate B (and the Liberal Party).  

If two Parties were marked off as negative, the whole negative column would be declared spoiled and only the plus column would be counted.

You might say that this system could easily be manipulated by partisans, pushing people who to vote against in a certain way.  I would answer yes, which is equally the case with the current system.  The biggest difference would be an overall shrunken tally

In the 2011 Canadian Federal Election, the votes broke down like this:

PARTY               TOTAL VOTES           SEATS

Con                      5,832,401                      166
NDP                    4,508,474                       103
Lib                       2,783,175                      34

I'd be willing to bet that, if negative votes were counted in, the totals would be a lot lower. A lot lower.  But those total would also provide a better reflection of voter intentions; after all, negative ads are about attacking other Parties and we all know that attack ads are effective, right?

It wouldn't be a pretty picture; we'd likely end up with vote totals in the double digits, if that, presenting a dismal view of our faith in the system on the whole.  But again, facing that reality would put more pressure on Political Parties as they focus on how to reduce opposition vote counts.

It'd become something of a Political Prisoner's Dilemma - if both sides attack each other, it'd be the public picture of our democratic health that would lose.

Of course, no Political Party would want this scenario to play out, nor should Elections Canada.  One vote enough would be sufficient to get Canadians demanding for changes to more than just who sits where in the House.

Which may be the very reason why ideas like this should be considered.  We already have a Tragedy of the House of Commons - maybe it's time we got a real good look at just how bad it is.

After all, you don't solve problems by denying they exist, baiting and switching or simply attacking someone else.  If that were true, we wouldn't stuck with the mess we're in right now.

When Your Only Tool Is a Hammer...

What's the key part of this statement?  

From where I'm sitting, it's the "take seriously criticism" part.  Team Harper has a long trend of not taking seriously criticism, period - on environmental policy, on economic policy, on the way they treat veterans, on a national healthcare strategy, on how they treat scientists.  They have criticized and disparaged pretty much everyone who disagrees with them; it doesn't matter whether it's their own staff, well-respected NGOs or even foreign associations and dignitaries.

If you don't share their point of view you are dangerous, dumb or devious and quite likely all three. 
Harper's CPC feels it's their duty to point this out through attacks in the House, on the hustings and of course, through paid and social media.

There's a psychology behind this, but it starts with bitter partisanship, something we've seen a steady increase in from all Parties, at all levels.  Rob Ford is as much a product of this tragedy of the political commons as is the Senate Scandal.

Harper's not the first to put going for an opponent's jugular at the top of his to-do list, but he's the most egregious to date.  In this country, anyway - there are obviously worse examples in Russia, Greece and Syria.

But therein lies the problem; when it becomes about winning, not achieving, you stop building.  You stop using all the tools - outreach, consultation, diplomacy, transparency - that bring the pieces together to make something greater than what you have.

Instead, you focus on removing the obstacles around you that may keep you from finishing first.  It's a self-reinforcing habit, this; it may start with leadership rivals, then Opposition Parties, but left unchecked this inclination to tear down turns to your own team, potential allies, even unbiased stakeholders.

It's like the shrinking of the middle-class; the more you undercut the unaligned, the longer becomes your list of enemies.  That's fine, if you plan to destroy them all, but in a practical sense you can't.  We all know what happens when you try.

The solution, as always, is to look forward and put achievement first.  To build, you need additional tools and more diverse resources.  You might even want to get second opinions and accept as valid constructive criticism, which you will actively encourage.  Above all, though, you need to know where you're going rather than focusing on how you'll end.

It's not too late for Harper to alter his approach and start doing what he needs to.  There are even some big, structural wins he could tackle that would facilitate this new approach and help him build the credibility he needs to be taken seriously as a nation builder.

But of course, we all know he won't.  After all, doing this his way has got him this far, right?

Leaders and Vision: To the Moon, Canada!

Love him or hate him, JFK's Rice speech remains a benchmark for leadership done right.  In stirring words, Kennedy articulated the legacy of a pioneering spirit that Americans rightly take pride in; he laid out in simple terms the course of human development and demonstrated the rapid pace of advancement the world had inherited.  

Then President Kennedy brought forward a bold, almost (but not quite) inconceivable vision of achievement and then went on to describe everything that was and had been done that generated the optimism that yes, putting a man on the moon was possible.

And you know what?  They did.

No young person in the United States or Canada has ever heard such a speech delivered by one of our leaders.  For that matter, none of the young political operatives strategizing plans, crafting narratives and writing speeches for those leaders has heard such a bold, pioneering vision, either.

There's an old quote about wood and cabinets that applies equally to vision; it's awfully tough to build on that which you haven't experienced.

Instead, they are used to bold pronouncements about economic fundamentals; job creation, deficit slaying, so on and so forth.  Hardly inspirational stuff - such expressions are designed to appease and comfort, not to empower and motivate.  Supplementing these planks of pragmatism tend to be fearful overtures - threats overseas, threats of socialists and separatists, things that only one Party or the other can protect the people from.

This makes for good partisan positioning, perhaps; reminding those voters why they need us.  It's a terribly ineffective way to catalyze innovation and to inspire action, though.  

In a way, it truly baffles me that with all the smart, well-read people directing traffic behind the political curtain, there is such resistance to bold visions and such an urge to play it safe.  They fight over slices of the demographic pie, focused with fevered zeal just on winning control over what we have already.  They can and should know better.  So why don't they?

It's because all too often they and the leaders they serve have forgotten that we are still pioneers.  When it becomes about winning, not achieving, you aim for what you see before you instead of aspiring to something greater.

A focus on economic fundamentals is inherently selfish; it's about getting what's yours, not contributing to something greater.  That's fine if you think history is over and that the goal today should be consolidation.

The same holds true for a focus on rhetoric around trust; if the emphasis is on trusting your leaders to govern as you would trust your neighbour to keep your extra front door key, the emphasis once again becomes one's ability to rely, laterally, on their representatives.  

You need economic stability.  You need trust.  But these things are only facets of leadership.

Leaders present visions of where we, collectively, could go, place that destination on a trajectory validated by history and provide the motivation, inspiration, drive to each and every one of us to get there, together.

You can implement all the tax breaks you want, cut all the regulations you want, but if there is no vision people can see and feel compelled to strive towards, then they will continue to do what people tend to do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been in conversations with a host of community groups, start-ups and pundits pursuing one initiative or another.  Each has struggled to know where to begin, who to bring on board, what direction they should be heading in.  When I ask "what's your end state look like?" I get descriptions of business plans, grumblings about structural problems that have to be addressed, etc.

I then rephrase the question.  "If you were to achieve all you wanted to achieve, in ten years what would the world/your community look like that differs from how it looks now?"  Answering this question tends to be a bit of a process, which is fine - it's one that needs to happen.  

When that vision is more or less clear, I then ask the following:

"What needs to be done between to get from here to there?  What skills, tools, new development are we going to have to look at if we're to bridge the distance?"

And that's it; that's the ingredient that's missing, the reason why capital is frozen and innovation is stagnant.  Canadians have been pretty settled with where we've been, which has made us complacent in a way we can no longer afford to be.  We have no new destination, no challenge to rise up to, no standard we are trying to set for others.

Which is why we're falling behind.

These, then, are the question we must be posing, not just of our leaders but of ourselves as well.

Where are we headed?  What awaits us there?  How do we bridge the distance?

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more that have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun - almost as hot as it is here today - and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out - then we most be bold.

You're up, bold leaders.  Where are we going today?

Thursday 16 January 2014

Through A Crystal Ball Darkly: Are We Repeating History? (Part 2)

Economic difficulties.  Populations frustrated with government institutions that don't seem to reflect or care about their realities.  Those same governments playing the populist, vehemently nationalist "charity starts at home" card.  A diminished interest in rising tensions and violence against minorities abroad - partially because those tensions strike a chord with a watered-down version of the same tensions here at home.

You don't need to be a Hari Seldon to see where this path tends to lead; there still people alive today who've been down it before.

I disagree with Kinsella on the "we never learn" part, though - there are new dynamics at play that can and will alter the game board (though to what degree remains to be seen).

Western nations are much more diverse than they were before.  Social media has made real-time information transmission, especially visual, that much easier.  Citizen journalism is co-opting main-stream (sometimes government-controlled) narratives.  Individual norm-disrupters ranging from Kai Nagata to Edward Snowden have built precedents for citizens to buck trends in a way that wasn't as virulently recognized in the 1930s.

Then, there are nascent resistance groups like Occupy, Arab Spring, etc. that are global in scope.  Also - Anonymous, The Mule in the plan.
With communications clamp-downs, attack ads, hate propaganda and of course, enough firepower and fear-factor, all these potential mitigations could be quashed.

They won't, though, for the simple reason that a hate-and-protector based organizational model invariably consolidates power into the hands of a few, who inevitably make mistakes and miss key trends.

That's not the risk.

The real risk is an expansion of what we're seeing in Syria or Iraq on a broader scale - in other words, anarchy (briefly) and then a consolidation of neo-feudalism.

Despite the stringent, Big Brother-like security and surveillance Russia is putting in place to keep order in Sochi I'd be surprised if violent confrontations don't happen.  When has building a bigger mouse trap (or decapitating a few mice) ever worked in the past?

There are far more converging, troubling trends out there then our message-track leadership appears capable of distilling and planning against.  Fortunately, at the same time, there is an emergent collaborative process being catalyzed through the global Open Government movement.

It's far from clear what will happen next, whether 2014 will be the year of the burning platform or is there is enough wisdom out there to ensure we have a strong enough second foundation to pivot to.

What is safe to say is that we live in interesting times.

H For Harper: Masks and Projections

It would appear, on the surface, that Stephen Harper is inscrutable.  

No one's quite sure if he's a blind partisan, a patient incrementalist or a Phantom Menace, carefully manipulating events, taking small hits along the way but always building towards the conclusions he has already foreseen.

Of course, there's only one reason political pundits have this discussion at all.

From policy wonk to Alberta Firewall advocate to Reform Leader, Conservative Leader and now Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has had a winning trajectory - if power and position are your key markers.

Within his actual legacy, though, are a great deal of missteps, backing-off of commitments and irrefutable mistakes.  In politics, though, none of these matter so long as you win.  If you win, that means you beat someone else, which means you must have known what you were doing all along.

Pundits believe this, even as they themselves recognize that more often than not it's Parties that beat themselves.  Neither Stephane Dion nor Michael Ignatieff were able to turn the Liberal Party into a competitive fighting force; so far, Tim Hudak has been successfully only in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If you look at Harper's response to any given crisis, he pulls from a rather limited playbook; fight (attack ads), flight (prorogation, time-allocation), denial (the unfolding Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy business), dismissal/obfuscation (anything that comes out of Paul Calandra's mouth) or repression (committee disruptions, muzzling staff).

In fact, if you're paying close attention, how he responds to any given communications issue before him hints strongly at what he will do next and, as a result, suggests what may be underlying the surface messaging.

But what matter?  In politics, winning is everything - if you win, after all, it means you're the cleverest pol in the drawer and therefore must be the best mind to lead.  Right?

This, then, is the secret sauce of Stephen Harper's supposed genius.

He doesn't do a lot of media, he doesn't do a lot of (non-partisan) events and he very rarely goes beyond his comfort zone of wonkish prognostication or bitter rebukes of opponents.  Harper's profile is very thin, his presentation bland - almost mask-like in nature.

Masks have a power that has been widely recognized.  Masks present an expressionless slate with no twitches of the eye or curls of the lip to provide emotional cues to audiences.  It's up to the people to project a perception of emotion onto the mask - a projection that is often more reflective of that person than of the individual behind the mask.

Such is the case with Stephen Harper; he keeps a low profile and, as a result, people are forced to project their understanding of his motivations and thought processes onto what they don't see. 

Some pundits have suggested this minimalist presence is further indication of how clever Harper is - having seen what happens to other leaders to spend too much time in the spotlight (people tend to burn through celebrities as quickly as they bore of disasters that impact others), the PM has consciously decided to keep a low-profile so as to further his political longevity.

But this, again, misses the inner truth that masks conceal:

For a self-assured, wickedly-clever political chess master, Harper spends a lot of time on fear.  I have been told that, in person, he is a man of utter surety and conviction that due largely to his self-perceived, unwavering moral centre.

Yet we've seen Harper back away from things he once held strong convictions about, haven't we, with transparency being front and centre?  Despite a resentment against old-school politics of opacity, Harper has withdrawn much of government's activity even further behind a veil of secrecy.

People of strong convictions aren't afraid to debate openly, honestly and directly with those they disagree with.  In fact, such people tend to have an almost missionary zeal for helping the uninitiated recognize the truth.

For all his conviction of belief, Harper doesn't do that.  He will message, he will attack or he will channel-change.  Sometimes, in safe one-on-one interviews with reporters he feels comfortable with, he'll reveal a bit of his thought process, but in the open, to a crowd that may contest him?  Never.

Stephen Harper is not inscrutable - he's a man in a mask.  His reasons for wearing it are his own, but what thoughts we project on to it are entirely of our own design.

Which means that if wool is being pulled over anyone's eyes, it's the people who are doing it to themselves.

The Cognitive Value of Planning Ahead

It takes the human brain (on average) 8 to 10 seconds to process new information; absorb it through the senses, run it through the limbic emotional response filter and figure out how to react.  The more new information you're faced with - a disaster situation, a crisis or a scandal - the longer that time frame gets.

This is why 70% of people freeze up like deer in headlights under duress.  They wait for someone to bring answers while they process, or they err on the side of "do nothing and this will blow over" as a confabulated rationale for their inactivity.  15% panic and do or say things that make no rational sense, like denying inflammatory comments that are already on the public record.

Public service providers try to reduce the amount of challenges people have in processing information (and therefore getting/doing what they need) by standardizing delivery mechanisms, symbols, etc.  Of course, taken to extremes this explains the colonial instinct and cultural stigma, but that's a post for another day.

The way to reduce the cognitive processing period and respond quickly and effectively to disasters, crises and scandals is through drills and pre-planning.  When you have already considered contingencies and planned/drilled accordingly, you've taken the processual (if not the emotional) cognitive function out the equation; instead of absorbing and responding to new data, you're pulling up old files and their related action plans.

"Remember your training, men!"  There's a reason that's a line soldiers hear often.

The lesson, therefore, is this - it pays to think ahead.

Albert Einstein
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Sweet Home Alberta, Where the Ground's A Slick Hue

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard old Neil put her down
Well I hope Neil Young will remember
The CPC don't need him around anyhow

Neil Young has made some headlines of late.  He's declared the Alberta Oil Sands a man-made disaster, going so far as to compare Fort McMurray to a Hiroshima-like wasteland.

This was a bit over-the-top; Hiroshima was a crowded city that was flattened with the intent of massacring everyone in a demonstration of force to cow the Japanese military machine. 

Comparisons between the Oil Sands and Mordor are far more appropriate - it is a landscape rendered inhospitable by activity designed to grow profit and power.  Nobody (no human being, at any rate) was living there, so no direct effort to harm people has been at play.  

The Oil Companies are doing what they are supposed to do - finding easy ways to profit and maximize their profit through the cheapest means of production possible.  Alberta is benefiting from the oil-generated wealth, so from an economic point of view, they're happy.  

The Stephen Harper Government of Canada is determined to slay the deficit, reduce public services and get everyone focused where they should be - on profit and consumerism - so they're all for expansion in the Alberta Oil Sands.  Drill more, sell more, diversify markets, get all Canada working in the natural resource sector - what can go wrong in this picture?

Well, a lot, actually.  Lots has been written about the impact of Oil Sands development on the flora and fauna of the region (what was there before, not so much now), but it's the leakage and potential impact on people that's of gravest concern.  Since 2009, for instance, there have been correlations made between higher-than-usual cancer rates in First Nations communities around the Oil Sands development region.  It's taken years of intense lobbying to even get to a point where studies are being done on this correlation to see if and how a connection might be made.

This probably annoys the Feds to know end; they're trying to get out of the healthcare business and focus on the economy and all this health-and-oil stuff is a big inconvenience.  Like a dentist-weary patient with a growing cavity, it's one of those things best ignored in the hopes that the problem will just stay as it is and not get in the way of extracting all that black sugar.

So, through a spokesperson, Stephen Harper weighed in with his response to Mister Young:

It's so true.  If Albertans weren't making good money off the Oil Sands, who could the provincial government tax to pay for cancer treatments for First Nations folk?

Team Harper has gone on to criticize Neil Young as being a bit of the pot calling the kettle tar-black; 

This is also true.  Just look at Mike Duffy, former fundraising superstar for the CPC - you think that sort of lifestyle comes cheap?  The same, incidentally, applies to former Ontario Conservative MPP Peter Shurman; his boss Tim Hudak wanted to keep Shurman's high-wattage star in Thornhill despite knowing he lived in Niagara; that kind of star power demands a certain privilege.  

If you want to talk about Canadian celebrities, though, even Neil Young has nothing on Rob Ford.  Celebrities are supposed to attract attention and catalyze opinion (Ford or against).  

Toronto's Mayor has become the world's most famous Canadian and loves the attention he gets; the problem is, being a a celebrity is really disruptive to the work of Toronto's Council.

Toronto has been repeatedly paralyzed due to the celebrity of its Mayor, much as Canadian Politics is often mired in the notoriety of its Senators.  Scrutiny is a good thing, but it's only part of the role of Parliaments and Councils - weighing the public's varied interests and setting direction and policy, one would think, are at least as important.

Yes, Neil Young has generated headlines over his comments.  Yes, policy makers like Stephen Harper are telling him to keep his nose out of business that's not his.  But the Oil Sands aren't just about the economic opportunities for Oil Companies, the province of Alberta or federal coffers; it's an environmental and health issue as well.  

In a democracy, such things are the public's business.  Given how cynical and disengaged Canadians have become due to the cynical spin of politicians and their spokespersons, any fan of transparency, dialogue and citizen engagement should welcome the intervention of non-political celebrities like Neil Young.

Love him or hate him, agree or disagree with what he says, Young's turning focus back to where in needs to be and catalyzing a conversation that our political celebrities and the Oil Companies themselves have failed to do.

So I hope Mister Harper will remember
As he puts old Neil down
That Canada's about more than money
That we're built on common ground.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Social Catalyst: What I Do

Today I had a great meeting with the small but dedicated team running an under-funded Not-For-Profit filling one of the many gaps left by existing public and private social services.  They were looking for some advice on re-packaging and re-branding themselves to better attract new funders. 
This group has a massive and supportive network that relies on and benefits from their services, but the folks in that network don't have any dedicated funding to contribute.  As I said, these folk are filling a gap that wouldn't exist if funding and services already existed.
I asked them to give me their elevator pitch - if I was a potential sponsor and we got on an elevator together at the ground floor, what would you tell me that would explain to me what you do?
"We really struggle with that," came the reply; "we do a number of things that vary between partners, but they're all necessary and nobody else is doing them."  It's a common refrain. 
Despite all we're told by successful people about the need to focus service offerings and develop narrow messages to target audiences, when you're a not-for-profit you don't get that luxury.  When people are in need, they come to you - the goal isn't to make money, after all, but to keep people from falling off the grid and maybe even get them on the path to self-sustainability.
For far too many social service providers, there's little money, long hours and a diverse mix of needs that intermingle; you can't be working in justice system supports without having a hand in mental health, family, education and employment issues, for example.  It's all well and good for those with comfortable means to live within to create divides between work/personal life, but for folk at risk and those supporting them, that's not an option.
When faced with situations like this, I like to offer an analogy. 
If someone asks a bus driver what they do, how do they answer?  Do they emphasize the need to check tickets, call stops, monitor traffic flow and street-light activity, or carefully moderate pedal pressure?  What of ensuring passengers move to the back of the bus or making sure to have alternative routes in mind should construction prove an issue? 
Nope.  The key fact of what they do is to safely take people from where they start off to where they're going.  The rest is implied by the skill they demonstrate in the practice of driving their bus.
It's not that people don't care about the nuance and complexity of what you do - rather, they expect that if you're doing your job, you're going to do it well, so it's the high-level that matters most to them.
This brings me back to a conversation I had yesterday where a friend introduced me with a title that was more than a tad convoluted - organizational planning and capacity building and strategy and other such things that read a lot better on paper than they sound on paper.
I simplified the matter by saying, simply, that I drive change.  Then, instead of explaining what that means, I just showed them.
Deeds, not words.  That gets them every time.

Disruptive Leadership

Disrupt the features of hierarchies.

This is a concept that is hard for most of our leaders to wrap their heads around, because they fundamentally don't get the dynamics of hierarchies.  

It's all well and good for, say, Rob Ford to suggest the bureaucracy is the problem - it's hierarchical and uncreative - but, like Stephen Harper, he doesn't solve the problem by slashing jobs.  Instead, he creates a parallel hierarchy of courtiers that serve the same role of making themselves gatekeepers.

The choice doesn't have to be between opaque bureaucracy or a feudal court.  The only reason it is that way comes down to motivation.

When you have a system that defines success on increased access to restricted resources (money, private clubs, the corner office, important people or even information) then the very nature of success fuels a system that kills innovation.  

This is a biological inheritance; the strongest, prettiest male dominates and gets the healthiest, most fertile female.  Environment determines success and the less-adequate get eliminated from the gene pool over time.

In a top-down hierarchy, the dominate force (the boss) collects second-tier talent who seek to gain from access to the person above them, and so on down the line.  Those who don't measure up get discarded - in a work environment, through being fired.  Ambitious people will try to nudge their way up to where the field gets more competitive (and theoretically less collaborative).  

When a given player realizes they've reached their limit, though, they aren't going to risk losing what they have; instead, they stand put and entrench themselves.  This is the clay layer.

When the boss will only speak to senior staff and junior staff are told only to communicate with their direct superiors, it's inevitable that those in the comfort zone will stop or impede flow.  Similarly, when the people at the top assume they have all the answers and that their job is to message and direct, not listen and learn, there's no point for the bottom rung being innovative.  It's a lot of effort for nothing.

Which is, surprise surprise, why democracy is such a great system.  It theoretically creates a feedback loop where the people at the bottom (citizens) are bosses of the politicians who direct the bureaucracy who plan policy and deliver services to citizens.

It's a system that works when politicians, as leaders, do their job - which is put the people, not wins, first.  The same goes for those within the bureaucracy, but most importantly, the general public.

If the general public sees itself as always right, deserving of every individual advantage, then they aren't providing the right guidance and expectations to their politicians and the civil service.

If, on the other hand, people commit a bit of sociology, consider context and demand shared solutions, then that's what they empower all other leaders to do.  

This, then, is what we need to succeed - communication, a willingness to stretch our understanding and a collective commitment to making society work.

In social evolution, there is no top of the food chain - so lead from everywhere, people.

Monday 13 January 2014

A Million Points of False Advertizing

Picture a well-lighted boardroom somewhere in downtown Toronto.  Around the table and with a few voices chiming in through conference call are Tim Hudak and his senior planning staff.  A gruff voices lays out the facts:

"This is your last shot at this, Tim.  Do you want to be remembered as the guy who lost to both McGuinty and Wynne or do you actually want to be Premier?"

"Okay," Hudak says with empty authority.  "Go through it one more time."

"We all know that jobs are the ticket.  That and cutting government.  We are not going back to picking on immigrants or prisoners, so we gotta throw something positive into the mix.  It's gotta be big, it's gotta be bold.  

"So we go with The Million Jobs Act.  What's not to like about that?  Cut government, cut taxes, trade deals or whatever - but a million jobs.  It gives people something to believe in.  You will be the man to bring a million jobs to Ontario."

Heads nod around the table.  One junior staffer clears their throat, dares to raise their voice.

"Um... should we really be promising to deliver a million jobs?  I mean, unless we go out and sign up eight years worth of written commitments from actual employers, isn't that a magic number we have no way to guarantee?  It's about setting expectations, right?"

Said staffer is never invited to such a meeting again.

How can a man who believes government should be out of the employment business promise a million jobs?  The truth is, he can't.  The only way to guarantee those jobs would be to guarantee a million hires himself - as we know, he's not going to do that.

Nor does he have written guarantees from employers to back up his promise.  In fact, he has nothing to back up his promise except for spin and ideology.  Hudak is now to job creation what Stephen Harper became on transparency.

But look at it from where he's sitting - does it really matter?  Hudak's only does have one last kick at the can, and he might as well go big.  If he wins, well, ideally he's got four years to put promises behind him.  It worked for McGuinty with the "I won't lower your taxes but I won't raise them either" bit, right?  Eight years is a long time.  People will have moved on before two have elapsed, but he'll still be Premier.

This is where Hudak's planners have made their fatal miscalculation.  They're used to looking at people from a sales perspective; voters are consumers and it's all about shaping the product they think they can buy.  Agency is a tagline, nothing more.

Too few political people understand just how disillusioned, desperate and frightened the people have become.  Parents carry the burden of knowing the world they leave their children is one of diminished opportunity.  Youth are failing to see the value in anything that isn't about selling themselves and scoring individual wins.

The Tea Party, Occupy and Idle No More are no passing things; they're symptoms of a societal malaise that is only worsened by crass retail politics.  Everyday folk are past the point of believing in leaders with clever, alliterative turns of phrase; they want substance.  That, or retribution.  Increasingly, nothing in the middle will suffice.

It would be a different story of Hudak explained the exact math behind his Million Jobs number and provided clear metrics along the way.  Were Hudak to promise in writing and over his grandmother's grave to resign if he should fail, people might give him some leeway, but he won't do that.

After all, politicians don't have to worry about being accountable - that's the opposition's job.  Right?

It's time our politicians and their planners wise up to the fact that it's no longer a matter of puffing up their partisan brands and slinging mud on their opponents'; it's the system itself that people no longer believe in.

Kicking the bums out of office is one thing, but when it's the office itself people want to turf, we have a problem. 

Tim Hudak and the The Tragedy of the Innovation Commons

There's more to the picture than this, though.

Not only are there managers afraid to try something innovative in case it doesn't work and hurts their brand; there are leaders who actively want to retreat from the emerging Knowledge Economy.  They either aren't interested in pursuing the risk and opportunity innovation presents and want to go back to what seemed to work last century, or see the populist value in saying so.

Tim Hudak's Million Jobs Act seeks to shrink government, remove regulation and put more emphasis on skilled trades positions.  No need to travel West to take on natural resource jobs - we can and should have more here at home.  He has also come out swinging against unions, saying that it's in the best interests of individuals to create one-off deals with their employers rather than collective bargaining, which in his mind is really just code for collective restrictions.

Hudak wants Ontario to compete with China and Bangladesh for basic manufacturing jobs - the skills trades positions of which he speaks.  In a global marketplace, companies don't really care where the labour comes from, what matters is how cheap it is.

How can one person competitively position their ability to fix widgets as being of greater value than a fellow living in poverty willing to do the same job for mere dollars a day and no vacation time?

They can't.  When it comes to basic skills for basic manufacturing, there's no way to compete other than through reducing the cost of labour through lower wages and reducing employee support obligations, which result from a relaxing of labour laws.  The only way to really get ahead in a global economy through traditional manufacturing positions is to take away the onerous costs to employers like workplace safety, employee benefits and higher wages.

Is that the Ontario we want?  Do we want our kids to be assuming greater workplace risk for less compensation and a lower quality-of-life than our parents enjoyed?  As countries like Bangladesh and companies like Wal-Mart face civic unrest and global pressure to do better for their employees, we don't want to reduce our quality-of-life by replacing them on the bottom rung.  But what's the alternative?

If you can't go backwards and stagnation isn't an option, you do what everyone else is doing - moving forwards.  Even places like Dubai are expanding their economic portfolio and embracing the value-add opportunities of the Knowledge Economy.

Companies like MSL Group are even creating and posting for positions with titles like "Creative Strategist."

The trick is not to do less; it's to do more, better.

We need to be innovative, ahead-of-the-curve and willing to embrace iterative failure on the path to success if we are to be sustainable, let alone competitive.  That's the nature of the free-market; that's the basic principle of all evolution, be it biological, social or economic:

Canada sucks at change; given our natural resource wealth, we've never needed to.  That's a reality that's rapidly changing, even as political leaders like Tim Hudak and Stephen Harper rush to embrace the horses and bayonets of economic success.

How do we avoid this spiral-down tragedy of the innovation commons that increasingly appears to be a Canadian inevitability?

It's really not that hard.  Canada has a host of structural challenges that cannot be solved through business-as-usual; there's our democratic deficit, youth un- and under-employment, issues of social justice, workplace productivity, unsustainable healthcare costs and a mental health crisis that underlies all of the above.  

That's where you begin.  You create a vision of what Ontario could look like, laying out a narrative of how we get from here to there and do what all leaders are supposed to do - inspire people to commit to something more than the sum of its parts.

But Canadians are sick and tired of hearing big talk from leaders unwilling to walk the walk.  We're tired of being told to live within our means, yet seeing an unending barrage of political folk getting caught living beyond their means with our dollars.  We're frustrated, angry, and scared.  Same for the private sector - there's little impetus to do things different, even in the face of tax cuts; they aren't taking risk because they have no motivation to do so.

Any Party that wants the people to embrace a vision of a better world needs to lead by example.  That means changing their internal HR practices to reflect what they would like to see in the Private Sector; it means full and open transparency; it means making business cases that aren't demographic-focused but solution-focused, not ideologically-based but evidence-based.

This is where Open Government and Open Data are heading, but we have a long way yet to go.

Some people may buy into Hudak's million job promise, but most will look at it with the same skepticism that greets Senate Reform or the Green Energy Act.  Why?  Because there's no proof it will work, only rhetoric and vague references to trendy frustrations.

Wynne has demonstrated a willingness to take risks - she's pushing the Open Government movement and has done some risky things in her response to the ice storm (for Toronto, at least).  People are very tolerant of mistakes, if they don't feel they rest solely on their backs.

If Team Wynne were to publicly demonstrate how they are ensuring their own practices (that means Party and Public Service) are reflective of their message to the province, they'd get a lot more respect.

The same goes for Team Hudak.  If they really believe what they say, I would expect them to demonstrate to the public how they are doing internally what they are pitching externally.  If success is based on independent gumption, then there will be no top-down messaging or enforced discipline between the Leader's Office and the rest of the Party.  His chosen critics will be 100 per cent in charge of their own files, not reciting lines handed down from his inner team.  If not, then there's really no difference between how he operates his Party and how a union functions.

Whether it's Wynne or Hudak, a Public Sector Manager or a Private Sector CEO, innovative success through iterative failure and team support comes down to one thing - leadership.

Without that, we're going nowhere.  And that's not sustainable.