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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.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Food Chain Politics

I can picture the back-room conversation, because I've heard it so many times before.

"Yeah, all great to be idealistic, but c'mon - this is politics.  People want you to sell only what they're buying and if you can't do that, you don't win.  Plus, you gotta hit the Oppo more; I know you don't like it but it doesn't matter.  It works.

I've heard words along these lines uttered by backroomers from every Party, from a whole host of relations consultants and partisans up and down the foodchain.

This is transactional, oppositional, incremental politics that refuses to look at the big picture as a matter of principal.  

I have seen some pretty petty politicians have their public images softened by strategic planners worried about alienating required voters, but I've also seen genuine leaders succumb to the types of position games that Canadians are frustrated with.

Which is why I'm positive that change can't happen from within in isolation - political culture is too entrenched for that.  It's going to take people inside and outside working together to heal our system.

Friday 21 March 2014

PS - The Market Doesn't Care About People

It's maddening to hear libertarian, fully free-market supports painting dreamy pictures of rainbows and unicorns (available in various shades and at competitive prices!) if we would just get rid or regulation.  
What do they base this on?  You ask them if companies will fail in a free market situation and they'll say sure, that's the way it's supposed to go - those who aren't competitive die off.  But when you replace companies with people, they just don't get it.

No way Jose, they'll say - people have the power, rational actors and so forth; get rid of government and regulation and they'll all just do fine.  Those who don't, well, that's what we make jails for, right? Or the hospital?  But those are costly institutions, so not very efficient.  Privatize them, make them competitive, costs will get reduced and more people will have access?

The political right is at least as naive and optimistic as the political left - a fully free market creates a state of social nature where the weak will literally die off, the aggressive (not skilled) will take the majority of resources and sales, not innovation or accomplishment, will become the driving economic force.  

Maybe that works for a while in a country like Canada with a lot of natural resources, but it's not a sustainable economic strategy.

But then sustainability of the nation isn't the overarching ambition of our government, is it?  Hell, they're an empire now - and we know how well empires turn out.

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.

Thursday 20 March 2014

The Political State

I remember a story I was told early on in my political staffing career as a sort of warning as to why it was important to be both mindful and cagey about connecting with the outside world.  The story was about a Minister in the Mike Harris government who'd gotten a bit too entitled to their entitlements and been caught with their hand in the till.
The story was about this Minister being hounded from the Legislature, down the tunnel between the Leg and Whitney Block and right to his office by reporters asking if he was a pig at the trough.  The fella's kids were apparently teased at school, the wife looked at with derision when out and about in town.
This was a story told almost with relish.  No surprise it was told by a war roomer who may or may not have played a role in pushing out the negativity of the story to the degree it was.
That's the thing about highly aggressive, elbows-up politics.  It is a bloodsport and if you are thinking of participating, be ready to get bruised and expect a little collateral damage.

Which is not to say politicians don't do things they should be held accountable for.  But as the case with a constantly-punished child, if you don't feel you can do anything right, what's the incentive to try?
Not a very welcoming environment for someone less interested in partisanship than policy, is it?  Or pols with families who want a division between personal and work lives?
It used to be the case that there were open and closed doors when it came to political sniping.  You could disagree with someone's actions or opinions, as it were, without demonizing their character.  As politics becomes more partisan, more focused on the win than policy, this is changing.
People don't matter.  Individual talent is judged only in its ability to serve The Party.  The Party -
not the constituents, not the Parliamentarians - hold the reigns. 
As such individuals are thrown under buses, are character assassinated, are subject to false, overblown and cherry-picked claims by opponents that long to see them bleed.
Nothing personal, don't you know - it's just business.
I understand very well that this is how politics functions and know all the argument in favour of aggressive, cut-throat partisan bickering.  I just also know that this is why politics isn't working and why we have a democratic deficit.
The aggressive, competitive, kill-or-be killed partisans aren't preventing a problem in their attempts to demolish their opponents - they are the problem.
At the very least, it's something to think about, no?


Wednesday 19 March 2014

Voluntelling Vs Empowerment - Are You a Boss or a Leader?

Rogers confirms its Exec. VP sent this email to "a small number of people" RE: campaign rally for John Tory.

Was this email from a person in a position of authority to staff asking them to support a Board Member inappropriate?  I would say so, yes, but I can also understand the other point of view.  

Without context, it's impossible to know if this same VP sends out emails to staff saying "Joe in Sales is putting together a team to enter a cancer run, he'd appreciate your support!)

Neither of these emails, coming from a position of power, are really clever, as the very nature of being a boss demands a certain amount of cow-towing.  

This doesn't, however, mean malicious, manipulative intent on the part of the person in charge.  I know that I've personally learned the hard way that what you say when you're in a position of power can carry more weight than you intend it to.

Which is why it's so important for people at the top of the ladder to make pains to ensure they are communicating effectively with their teams, rather than expecting the reverse to happen - which is how business tends to functions.

Where this reality is most egregious, however, is unquestionably in politics.  Youth who get hired by elected officials to work in individual offices and are paid by the taxpayer through the Legislature are held to account directly by unelected, unaccountable political party officials.

If a political staffer isn't donating to the party, isn't attending rallies, isn't knocking on doors during campaigns, they have no hope of promotion within government offices and can often find themselves discriminated against.  

Aggressive, alpha-bosses like this relish telling kids what to do and asserting their authority by demeaning others.  Worse, they feel that this is appropriate behaviour from people in charge.

The rationale goes like this - if Part X doesn't win and maintain a majority, then all the political staff lose their jobs.  If staff don't get this reality, however they feel about it, there is no place for them in politics.

Politics, of course, is a micro-targeted, sales-heavy, attack-reliant field that churns through people like a paper shredder.  Those who last start to look at the whole world through a partisan lens which shapes their every relationship and interaction.

In this model, the boss never fails, the people do.  Responsibility is never assumed, but deflected. Sadly, we end up with people at the top very good at sales and blame, but not necessarily good at actual work, coordination, collaboration or problem-solving.  It's why we've got some many structural deficits in the first place.

On the other hand, how many excellent Not For Profits with great visions and mandates struggle to get money, retain volunteers or attract skilled talent?  They focus on the work, not on sales and in this world, it's sales that defines success.

This is not how Leaders operate, but leaders aren't about building audiences, raising funds or selling memberships.  Leaders empower people and bring them together, putting them in the driver's seat.

We don't have a work culture that promotes leadership; in fact, there are a lot of great leaders out there with little chance of climbing corporate ladders because they're too busy doing rather than selling.

The people in charge have it backwards.  Instead of demanding people come to them and sell what they have, we need to see more recruitment and talent-searching, with leaders taking time to find out who's leading themselves from whatever capacity within an organization, or within society.

Across the board, I'm seeing more and more money being spent on sales, more and more people being left behind and massive structural gaps appearing that simply can't be solved by aggressive ladder-climbers with tunnel vision.

If we're ever to establish a sustainable society, we need to embrace a true leadership model.

After all, in a democracy, isn't supposed to be the people who are in charge?

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Government: It's Not a Race, Stupid!

For all those folk who tell me I'm too positive/need to rant more, here you go.

Politics/sports comparisons drive me up the wall, make me gnash my teeth and utter the odd profanity.
Seriously, people?
Let's think a bit about how we view actual sports.  They're like a religious ceremony, a rite of passage, something removed from yet parallel with the rest of society.  Like a doodle on a painting or a stain on our memory, we don't want to see them in any way sullied with something as mundane and dirty as politics.

That was a common refrain from Sochi, wasn't it?  And how many other international sporting events before that?  The Olympics is about national brand/the athletes; it'd be unfair to them and bad for our global standing not to be in the race.

All those poor athletes who invested so much time and energy into competing, we wouldn't want to deprive them of their opportunity, would we?  It should be about them and their competition, regardless of what's happening in the world around them.

It reminds me an awful lot of how the campaign team that worked to nudge John Tory into the race "put a lot of effort into this and will be very disappointed" if they didn't get to run.  If you look around the political landscape, you'll see organizers who get mad and turn against their team if they're left on the bench; same holds true for MPs who want a kick at the Ministerial can but aren't given the chance.

We talk about bench strength, don't we?  You want to have the best potential communicators on your team and need to make sure the nomination processes are designed to provide them - rather than people who are best able to represent their constituents.

Or how about how entire Party operations are aligned to support Leaders, like pit crews for race car drivers?  Money must be raised to support the leader.  Volunteers must be rounded up to support the leader.  Put them in the driver's seat, as it were, and then start peddling behind them.

We do use sports analogies for politics all the time - it's competition, its races, it's clocks counting down and tricky strategies to beat the other team.

Professional sports is one of those very rare fields where participants aren't allowed to have anything resembling personal lives - they're all-in if they want to win and if they aren't, they don't belong there.  For their efforts, they aren't really expected (or even welcomed) to engage in different fields - their job is to keep their heads down, perform, and entertain, not pundify on political issues.
Funny enough, the same applies to hardcore political operatives - they're all about the win, too.  They will dedicate their lives, sacrifice their relationships and hit up their family members for donations, maintaining a laser-like focus on the win. 
Except they aren't athletes and the choices they make/actions they take with their blinders-on functional fixedness impact real policy decisions and in turn, everything from taxation to infrastructure spending to public service delivery.

How many times have I heard war roomers talk about "picking fights" to take potential threats out of the race or mobilize their base?  It's like they're living out their failed hockey enforcer dreams, except in our Legislatures.

Leaders that think they're sports stars; political organizers that think they're sports teams.  Where does that leave everyone else in our Parliamentary democracy?

In the audience, that's where - as passive participants, cheering for the Reds or Blues, Greens or Oranges instead of proactively engaging in policy conversations around things like healthcare or foreign aid.

Maybe people want it this way - maybe they'd rather see politics as a bloodsport, something to be watched or avoided, but not engaged in.  Political operatives certainly want it this way - they constantly tell us we're not interested in the political sausage-making process and work hard to keep their training regimens out of sight.

But this isn't democracy.  Democracy isn't a spectator sport, it's civic engagement.  In democracy, leaders fuel their teams who in turn are supposed to engage with the audience in a conversation that results in the best outcomes for everyone. 

This is critical, because society is far more complex than any sport; when you choose to view politics as a simple competition between leaders and teams for market share, you're not looking for sustainable solutions.

Which is where we are now - increasingly competitive political parties that, surprise surprise, like the idea of reducing competition and adding more games per season, as that's where they flourish (and get paid).  They want more of your money so they can fight more effective campaigns, buy more ad space and put out more attack ads (of course you hate them, but they work, don't they)?
The focus here isn't on shared solutions, but individual or team wins.  The public are spectators, not participants.  Sustainable policy choices aren't even part of the conversation.
This is why I cringe at the adoption of political primaries - essentially, big game days - into our process.  The last thing we need is for citizens to have another reason to fully embody the role of side-line pundicators and jersey-wearers.
You want entertainment?  Watch an actual sports game.  Crave scandal?  Go watch Game of Thrones.
Democracy is not a fucking game.
When we treat it like one, we all lose.

Monday 17 March 2014

Hey Parents, Let's Talk About Sex

So, it's not cool to teach kids about sex and relationships in school.  It's inappropriate to look at social-emotional regulation or power relationships via empathy in classes, 'cause that's too much like committing sociology.  

For their part, parents don't want or even have to prepare their kids for independent relationships and sound, contextual choices; why, they just have to stalk them on social media and send them to their room if they say or so something that makes the parent uncomfortable.

Which is an approach that leads to scandalous stories like this one in the first place.  Makes for good copy, but does a poor job of preventing the problem.

Parents don't need to micro-mange their children; they have to parent them, which means teach them the skills they need to succeed in healthy fashion (including where relationships are concerned) on their own.

Quit maligning the kids these days - just remember who it is they're learning from.

Paikin, Power and The Ladies

It would blow my mind, this societal disconnect we have - if I didn't get where it comes from.

On the whole, people value and reward bluster; men who demand more at work get more, just as those willing to learn golf to suck up to the boss are more likely to get promotions.

"It's all about relationships," we're told, even as the bosses of the world practice laissez-faire capitalism and expect their employees to come all the way to them.

It is all about relationships, in terms of who's dominant in any given situation.  The reason women are being encouraged to play golf is because, when you get down to it, paying homage to dominance is being encouraged as an employable skill.

What these relationships aren't about (but should be if you want to stay successful) is about strengthening everyone.

That would be a bit too much like committing sociology, wouldn't it?

There was this thing for a while where assumptions made about women and positions of power - namely, that access to those positions was causing women to act more like men.

That's not the case.  If anything the opening up of fields like politics or Boards without significant and matching culture changes has meant that it's women who behave in more stereo-typically male fashion - aggressive, selfish, reactive - get ahead.  

Is that their fault, or is it ours, collectively?

At the same time as we have massive egos duking it out while pretending to plan policy or do business, we have leaders - real leaders - who aren't drawing a lot of attention to themselves but are getting a lot of solid work done, and that without massive resource or constant pats on the head.

If I were to sit down and rhyme off the names of the top 20 famous/successful people I know, they'd predominantly be men in business and politics.  If, however, I was asked to name the top 20 influential/accomplished people I know, the list would be predominantly women and reference their roles as leaders of engagement or social purpose ventures.

It reminds me of a campaign I worked on once where a couple of twenty-something men were being asked about a project they'd been assigned.  

There was some bold, empty statements followed up with bluster and finger-pointing when pointed questions couldn't be answered.  Meanwhile, a slightly older women who'd been collaborating with them quietly went to a folder, pulled out the work being discussed and placed it between the two boys.

There's a big difference between sales/promotion and leadership/empowerment.

If you sit in your office and wonder why the women aren't banging on your door for a chance to sell themselves, you're losing out - we are losing out.

Instead of issuing the television equivalent of a mating call, get 'out and look for women leaders who are changing the world from the front lines and are simply too busy to worry about the blustering boys at the top.

And remember - money, ratings, whatever, it's always the case that you need them more than they need you.

Open Government on the Open Road

The missing bridge Richard Pietro speaks of is trust.  Trust between citizens and politicians, between partisans and activists, between each of us.

A bridge is a connecting link that allows for traffic to go both ways.  Bridges serve as catalysts for connectivity, opening doors for communication, collaboration and opportunity.

Richard is a catalyst.  A former political candidate who grew frustrated with much of the self-serving nature of partisan politics, Richard has become a focal point in Toronto's Open Data/Open Government community.

It's easy to blame this disconnect on one person, or one class - easy, but inaccurate.  Our social disengagement is due to a number of complex, interwoven factors, including:

- the growing power of Partisan Parties in our political process
- the busy-ness of our daily lives, the density of our social concerns (you can't talk healthcare without talking transit, can't talk poverty without talking mental health, can't talk economics without talking culture, etc) 
- traditional communication gaps that have grown into chasms 

Blame is easy.  Punishment can be rewarding, whether it's voting the bums out, firing or throwing someone in jail - but it's often a band-aid solution that avoids structural problems and actually serves to harden the walls between us.

There are cracks showing in these walls, though, with tendrils of community growth peeking through.  The Open Government movement is an example of this; across Canada and the world, policy planners, social activists and partners from the private and not-for-profit sectors are joining with governments to dismantle the firewalls around public data.

It's reason to hope - the people in positions of power, the "data-keepers" and the social change agents are all working together to open government and everything it does to public participation.  

However this, in itself, isn't enough.  People need to know these doors are open and trust that if and when they walk through, they will be welcomed as a collaborator, not dismissed as an outsider.  

This is an enormous challenge - breaking past many layers of assumption, mistrust and disengagement to bring people back together in collaborative ways.  

There are many players chipping away at these walls in different ways, including co-working social sustainability organizations like The Social Gardner, civic information and engagement groups like Samara and Why Should I Care and emerging networks like #dezTO.  Richard himself is co-founder of Citizen Bridge, which looks to open data for the public in a way that makes it accessible.

Pockets of these Peaceful Revolutionaries are popping up across the country - there's a strong community in Toronto and another in Ottawa.  In fact, 2014 saw Open Data Days in:

Edmonton            Toronto
Guelph                 Vancouver
Montreal              Waterloo
Ottawa                 Windsor

But what of the communities in between?  

What about those within these cities who would like to know more but don't know this emergent community exists?  Individual bridges are a starting point, but what we really need is a network.

Which is why Richard is bringing Open Government on the Open Road in a non-political tour like no other before it.  

Starting in July this summer, Richard will be hopping on a motorcycle with a few supplies and taking off on an exploration of Canada.  Along the way he'll be talking all things #OpenData at City Halls, coffee shops, community centres and anywhere engaged people and music are to be found.  

Unlike a political leader's campaign, Richard isn't out to promote himself; he's out to connect people to what's rightfully theirs - community, public data, the levers of government.

While he's not looking for photo ops or press hits, some of us love the concept of his tour so much that we're working on creating a website where people can record video of his journey and their own take on Open Government to crowd-source a documentary (or documentaries) that demonstrate how this open-stuff works in practice.

Expect something magic to come of this journey.  

After all, Richard is the guy who brought together senior bureaucrats from Ontario and Toronto, Microsoft, engaged citizens, community groups and a very special civics class from Humber Collegiate in a government building to talk engagement will listening to Rage Against the Machine, as well as this guy.

I expect we'll all gain fresh insight into Canada and Canadians with all our magnificent diversity, but also a deeper understanding of all the things that bring us together.  There will be adventures, challenges, new friendships and sad partings along the way, but everywhere Richard goes, new connections will be made.

Which is why Open Government is like a Yamaha motorcycle - it opens up the country for new opportunity, new connectivity and growth.

The #OpenGov movement is a journey towards individual freedom, community engagement and a sustainable society.  Hop on, folks - it's gonna be one hell of a ride.