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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 28 March 2014

The Behavioural Economics of Political Scandal

This sort of culture leads to this sort of result.

It's messy, scandal-ridden and worst of all sins, inefficient.

This sort of culture leads to this sort of outcome.

It's messy, but transparent and leads to co-designed solutions people can live with and abide by.

Shared Solutions work better.

It's not rocket science, people.  It's just sociology.

“Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron ( Mitchell Weiss)

“Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Entrepreneurship almost always involves pushing against the status quo to capture opportunities and create value. So it shouldn’t be surprising when a new business model, such as ridesharing, disrupts existing systems and causes friction between entrepreneurs and local government officials, right?
But imagine if the road that led to the Seattle City Council ridesharing hearings this month — with rulings that sharply curtail UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar’s operations there — had been a vastly different one.  Imagine that public leaders had conceived and built a platform to provide this new, shared model of transit.  Or at the very least, that instead of having a revolution of the current transit regime done to Seattle public leaders, it was done with them.  Amidst the acrimony, it seems hard to imagine that public leaders could envision and operate such a platform, or that private innovators could work with them more collaboratively on it — but it’s not impossible. What would it take? Answer: more public entrepreneurs.
The idea of ”public entrepreneurship” may sound to you like it belongs on a list of oxymorons right alongside “government intelligence.” But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.   They are using sensors to detect potholesword pedometers to help students learn; harnessing behavioral economics to encourage organ donationcrowdsourcing patent review; and transforming Medellin, Colombia withcable cars. They are coding in civic hackathons and competing in the Bloomberg challenge.  They are partnering with an Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston or in Philadelphia, co-developing products in San Francisco’s Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program, or deploying some of the more than $430 million invested into civic-tech in the last two years.
There is, however, a big problem with public entrepreneurs: there just aren’t enough of them.  Without more public entrepreneurship, it’s hard to imagine meeting our public challenges or making the most of private innovation. One might argue that bungled healthcare website roll-outs or internet spying are evidence of too much activity on the part of public leaders, but I would argue that what they really show is too little entrepreneurial skill and judgment.
The solution to creating more public entrepreneurs is straightforward: train them. But, by and large, we don’t.  Consider Howard Stevenson’s definition of entrepreneurship: “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” We could teach that approach to people heading towards the public sector. But now consider the following list of terms: “acknowledgement of multiple constituencies,” “risk reduction,” “formal planning,” “coordination,” “efficiency measures,” “clearly defined responsibility,” and “organizational culture.” It reads like a list of the kinds of concepts we would want a new public official to know; like it might be drawn from an interview evaluation form or graduate school syllabus.  In fact, it’s from Stevenson’s list of pressures that pull managers away from entrepreneurship and towards administration.  Of course, that’s not all bad. We must have more great public administrators.  But with all our challenges and amidst all the dynamism, we are going to need more than analysts and strategists in the public sector, we need inventors and builders, too.
Public entrepreneurship is not simply innovation in the public sector (though it makes use of innovation), and it’s not just policy reform (though it can help drive reform).  Public entrepreneurs build something from nothing with resources — be they financial capital or human talent or new rules — they didn’t command. In Boston, I worked with many amazing public managers and a handful of outstanding public entrepreneurs.  Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob brought the country’s first major-city mobile 311 app to life, and they are public entrepreneurs.   They created Citizens Connect in 2009 by bringing together iPhones on loan together with a local coder and the most under-tapped resource in the public sector: the public.  They transformed the way basic neighborhood issues are reported and responded to (20% of all constituent cases in Boston are reported over smartphones now), and their model is now accessible to 40 towns in Massachusetts and cities across the country.  The Mayor’s team in Boston that started-up the One Fund in the days after the Marathon bombings were public entrepreneurs.  We built the organization from PayPal and a Post Office Box, and it went on to channel $61 million from donors to victims and survivors in just 75 days. It still operates today.
Public entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship. It’s the pursuit by public officials and their collaborators of opportunity without regard to resources controlled.  First year students at Harvard Business School are taught that entrepreneurs face substantial risk in pursuing a new opportunity and a basic Catch-22 that comes with it: that it’s difficult to reduce risk without resources and difficult to attract resources while risk is high. Public entrepreneurs face the same predicament.  The course teaches four tactics to cope with the challenge: lean experimentation, scaling, partnering, and storytelling.  We can create public entrepreneurs by teaching these skills, more often and jointly, to future public leaders and their partners. And we can teach them well if we recognize that public entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship, but that it also takes place in a different context and requires nuanced application of these tactics.
  • Lean experimentation and tests with something less than the final product can seem scary in the public sector, but special opportunities exist, too; public press and community engagement can sometimes serve as “smoke tests,” and even public betas can work well if they are managed right.
  • Scaling too fast — especially by adding too many personnel and too much hierarchy — can be a particular pressure for public sector officials who are accustomed to working in big institutions; scaling too slow can mean too little growth/commitment when political leadership changes over.
  • Partnering is de rigueur in the public sector today, but the officials must keep the power dynamic in mind and keep the “public” in the public entrepreneur; questions of profit and intellectual property are especially complex and dynamic. And where is the line between “partnering” with the public and outsourcing work to them that they likely expected government to do? The public entrepreneur needs to understand how the tools she uses — incentives, rewards, etc. — can change the feeling and ultimately the value of their partnership with the public.
  • Storytelling is an essential leadership tool and, if anything, this applies even more to public leaders, in whom press and public interest are especially acute.  How does the public entrepreneur effectively leverage the pressure to “announce stuff” in ways that will provide incentives to run lean (as a cash flow curve would for private entrepreneurs) without foreclosing pivots and changes?
If we start with the basics of entrepreneurship, then consider the special context and dynamics of the public sector and closely examine the decisions and actions of public entrepreneurs, we can learn what makes great public entrepreneurship, and we can generate more of it.
It’s worth noting that public entrepreneurship, perhaps newly buzzworthy, is not actually new. Elinor Ostrom (44 years before her Nobel Prize) observed public entrepreneurs inventing new models in the 1960s. Back when Ronald Reagan was president, Peter Drucker wrote that it was entrepreneurship that would keep public service “flexible and self-renewing.” And almost two decades have passed since David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s “Reinventing Government” (the then handbook for public officials) carried the promising subtitle: “How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector”.  Public entrepreneurship, though not nearly as widespread as its private complement, or perhaps as fashionable as its “social” counterpart (focussed on non-profits and their ecosystem), has been around for a while and so have those who practiced it.
But still today, we mostly train future public leaders to be public administrators. We school them in performance management and leave them too inclined to run from risk instead of managing it. And we communicate often, explicitly or not, to private entrepreneurs that government officials are failures and dinosaurs.  It’s easy to see how that road led to Seattle this month, but hard see how it empowers public officials to take on the enormous challenges that still lie ahead of us, or how it enables the public to help them.

Why The Political Right Shouldn't Like Star Wars

OpenGov vs Partisan Politics: Culture Conflict

Open Government by Default - participation, empathy, learning from the past to plan a better future.

The people are always right.

Partisan Politics As Usual - messaging, threats, dismissing the past and telling people what they should care about.

Father knows best.

It'll be an interesting conflict, but given this reality - Occupy has bled into the Civil Service - you can kind of see where it's all going to head.

And we know where leaders emerge in times like these; not from the establishment, but of the people.

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Netflix a Conduit for an Open Society?

What does Netflix have to do with Open Data, you might ask?  How can Netflix be a catalyst for the culture change needed to kick Canadians out of their complacency and become more directly engaged in shaping government?

Well, it's funny you should ask.  Because Ted Sarandos has essentially identified one of the core problems impeding the full bloom of Open Government in Canada - access.

Governments can put their data online, but can people access it?  Would people in downtown Toronto have better access to information than people in, say, Moosejaw or St. John's?

How many citizens actually know there's a push from some quarters for public data to be made public - and why that's a good thing? 

Not enough.  Nobody's reaching out to them in a way that informs, empowers and engages - at least, not yet.  

This is the sort of bold, disruptive and visionary approach Canadians tend to be bad at, but the challenge virtuous schemers of the Open Government movement have taken upon themselves.

Among them is a fella named Richard Pietro, an engaged citizen who, despite not working in government, in Big Data or in Public Relations led the charge that organized Open Data Day Toronto, bringing 360-plus people from the highest ranks of the Ontario/Toronto government and civil service to a group of grade 10 civics students into one room to make change happen.  

And it is happening.

Now, Richard is taking his passion, connections and understanding of how Open Government/Open Data will change everything on the road.  This summer, he'll be touring across Canada, discovering his country as he shares the message with elected officials, bureaucrats, engaged citizens and grassroots catalysts.

The Open Canada/Open Road tour is going to be a bit like Fight Club, except with a focus on bringing people together.

An ambitious part of Richard's vision is to empower people across the country to capture this journey of discovery and collaboration on video, post these videos online in one portal and enable anyone with the time and desire to craft documentaries, stories, parodies, whatever they want with that footage.

It'd be open data in practice.

The problem is that this isn't something that has ever been done before, and here in Canada we're not so great at bold risks.

But clearly, Netflix is.  They get video, they have resources and they have a clear why in place - disrupt the complacent culture in Canada that's impeding the growth we need to succeed.

Richard's tour is happening - you can read about it here and see his pitch to Yamaha for a bike to explore the country with here.

Open Government is coming - it has to.  Open Data is necessary for Canada to grow as it needs to into the Knowledge Economy, but to get there we need better internet access for all Canadians.

Which, I would think, would be something Netflix could get behind.

I'm all about the win-win, and I see one here.  If Netflix can help get an Open Sourced Open Road video platform online and make it accessible to as many Canadians as possible, they can catalyze a movement that will, unfortunately, leave some people behind - but give everyone reason to push for the changes we need to foster a truly open society.

And if Netflix had a contest for best Open Road documentary and aired it themselves?  I bet Canadians would love them for it.

The Peaceable Revolution: Ontario's Ballot Question

Which example should I pull for my quote?  Breach of trust?  Contempt of Parliament?  Empty rhetoric, partisan positioning, misdeeds from staff, lies from leaders, bad behaviour, falsified behaviour, so on and so forth?

Which is what our politics has become - a melodrama that cycles endlessly, resolving nothing, going nowhere.  Why?  Because the people instigating it are so confident they know where they're going, they actually refuse to look ahead.

Save us, lord, from short-sighted people.  You know, the ones who put the win before actually accomplishing anything.  They position themselves as the only answer to our structural deficits but the truth is they're the problem.

Political operators are convinced of their righteousness and have gotten pretty damned good at confabulating rationale for moral lapses.  It always involves tight political framing of them vs us, meaning we have to do whatever it takes to stop them from taking over.  Only their leader can save us from the barbarian hoards at the gate.

These are the folk behind close doors who look at the people as pieces to be moved on a board.  

At this very moment, they are gathering their polling data, field-testing their messages and trying to find the ideal ballot question that frames the next election, every election - we have one municipally, provincially and federally in the offings.

The content of the question doesn't really matter, to them - whatever helps them win does.  That is how partisan politics works, after all.

But these aren't stupid people, nor are the entirely blind to the will of the people, when it surfaces.

That doesn't happen often, especially in these days of message-heavy advertizing and micro-targeted policies and outreach campaigns.  But it does happen, and when the people raise their voice loudly as one, the folk at the top can't but hear our thunder.

Here's what I'm hearing from the people on the street and in our Legislatures reading in the headlines and reports from organizations across the political spectrum and the few genuinely non-partisan ones.  

They don't know who's driving any more and certainly don't think anyone knows where we're going.  

We see blame, we see deflection, we hear boasts but see little action and almost no process.  We don't trust the people at the top, largely because we can see how much they have cut themselves off from the world they seek to govern.  

But the system is such that it really doesn't matter who gets in; corruption, dirty tricks and cynicism have clearly set in at all levels, among all Parties.  You don't cure lead poisoning by changing your cup - you have to get in and replace the pipe.

This is what Open Government and Open Data are doing, internationally.  They're unsexy terms for what is truly a revolutionary movement which will change the nature of government and civic engagement in ways as dramatic as Magna Carta and the English Civil War did for Responsible Government.

Federally, the Harper Conservatives are leading the charge.  Provincially in Ontario, it's Wynne's government.  In plain sight where people aren't looking, bureaucrats at all three levels are working together to make themselves accountable to the people and bridge the gap between citizens and their government.

It's real, it's happening, and it's powerful.  

But it's not where any of the Political Parties are focused.  How could they be?  There's nothing them and us about open government - open government is about everyone.  It's bad politics.

But it's good governance.  It's necessary change if we're to break through the barriers that are keeping our society from growing in the way we need to.

Which is why, this time, the people shouldn't leave it up to the partisans to establish the ballot question.

We should be doing that ourselves.

In Open By Default:  A new way forward for Ontario, the provincial government is challenged to establish themselves as a national leader on open governance and open data - to be leaders of the Peaceable Revolution for a Responsible Society.

It's the right thing to do, but it's also a hard path to take, without support - there's too much partisan risk involved.

But not if we make that the ballot question.  

If Ontarians make it clear that we're done with spin and messaging and want to see our leaders walk the walk, we could frame the ballot question like this:

Which Party is going to demonstrate their commitment to Open Government and Open Data between now and the election by becoming completely Open Themselves?

They could position all they want, frame themselves as the solution to the Opponent problem all they want, spend their money on as many attack ads all they want.  It would be resources addressed to the wrong problem, as partisan politics so often is.

We would look for the Party most able to open its doors for total transparency and direct accountability.  Every staff hire, fire, training paid or not paid for, advertising dollar, consultant dollar, fundraiser held and who attended, community consultation and which groups were invited would be open for the people to see.

The people could judge the Party not on what they say they will do, but on what they are doing right now.

If we believe a Party is open, then we'll believe they're open to advice, consultation, shared solutions - democracy.  

If, and only if, we see that they are walking the walk, they would get our support.

Here comes the sneaky part.

Should every Party see clearly, unequivocally that the people have an unshakable devotion to open government, they would all have to move in that direction.  

Win or lose, the people would reward the behaviour they want, forcing each Party to continue down this path in perpetuity until, as with any evolution, openness becomes innate.

It's not about left or right, them or us, who's at fault - it's about everyone moving forward.

Whichever Party willing to trust the people and lead by example, we would trust in return.

This may sound like a pipe dream, but it isn't.  It's a reality that's emerging right now.  And those Parties unable to adapt to this spin of the wheel are going to find themselves falling behind.

Which is how it should be, no?

Thursday 27 March 2014

Ontario: Working Together, Leaving No One Behind

Economic Growth + Paid Interns: Yes, You Can

Really?  You can't reward the labour you need for your organization to thrive?  How much do you pull in a year, Mr. Knight?

You know who really has no money?  Homeless people.  They have the clothes on their backs and that's it.  Everyone else has money in one form or another.  Some have more than others.  The executives who jet set around the world, eat at expensive restaurants, wear expensive clothes and golf at exclusive clubs?  They have lots of money.

They just aren't sharing it.

If the purpose of an organization is to survive, then money has got to flow.  The braintrust needs it's bloodflow, but so do the limbs.  Without it, they atrophy and the whole system dies.  Interns aren't meant to be free labour, they're meant to be investments in the future - for your company and for society as a whole.  Giving a kid experience fetching your coffee isn't value-add.

That's where we're at right now in society - we've been living the Randian dream of competitive, selfish people getting ahead (power in politics, money in the Private Sector, starfish throws in the Not-For-Profit sector) instead of investing in the system.  

Businesses don't look to survive, they look to make their shareholders/executives money.  It's like clear-cutting a forest - you suck the resources dry and when that entity is dead, you move on to the next one.  Or you die off yourself.  It happens to fungi.

This is not a sustainable model.  In fact, it's detrimental to our collective economy, infrastructure and society. 

Which revolution do I need to point to before that message sticks in the brains of these people with money pretending they don't have any?  

It's been long enough that the people in power have been telling everyone else to pick up their bootstraps and compete hard for what they want.  

Be careful what you wish for, etc.

The Floodamental Question

More to the point - what parent would ask such a sacrifice of their own children? 

Religions on the whole are rife with variants on the same principle - The Creator building the world out of blocks, not liking the end result, breaking everything down and starting again.

This is a Creator that demands immutable perfection and dependence, requiring his constructs to pay homage.

But then there's this whole thing about God the (strict) Father.  

As a parent, it is always, always my goal to ensure my children develop their independence.  I don't want to tell them why they need me - I want them to go forth and confidently create on their own.

It's more than a little ironic that questions like this are being raised at a time when the world over, people are questioning their confidence in government as unassailable leader.  It's a movement we've seen before, but this time, it's even wider-reaching.

Which is why I wonder sometimes if we've got things backwards.

When the Master's work is done, the people say: "Amazing, we did it all by ourselves!"

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Duck, Duck, Diversity: The Syllogism of Stigma

There are a number of fascinating conversations about human interaction happening across the world right now, with a healthy concentration of them here in Canada:

- The Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are talking about the interface of police, justice and people with mental illness

- The Open Government/Open Data movement is talking about civic engagement and shared solutions

- HR folk are talking about cultural competency

- How do we support (or not impede) women leaders in the Private Sector? How do we encourage youth to get involved in politics?

- civic engagement groups like Samara and Why Should I Care are trying to address cultural biases within and surrounding politics/democracy at large

- as always, political people are trying to find new ways to connect with potential voters/donors

The list goes on and on.

At the root of all these conversations is the most human of challenges - the art of communication.

Where do we get it wrong?  How can we do it better?  Toughest of all to ascertain - at what point between sending and receiving do we connect?

Let's face it - people generally suck at communication.  Introverts will absorb, but not share. Extroverts want to share, but aren't interested in listening.  And that's before we even get to economic, social, ethnic, gender, religious, linguistic, so and and so forth barriers.

Note the word - barriers.  As in, things that separate us.  This is so fundamentally important to communication, it's maddening how few people understand this.

We talk about smart people and dumb people, lefties and righties, hawks and bleeding hearts, common sense and sheer idiocy, etc.  They don't think like us.  We are right, they are wrong.  Why don't they just get it?  Kids these days.  Adults just don't understand what it's like to be young.

I can't deal with people that aren't like me.  It's better to surround yourself with like-minded individuals, save yourself the headache.


Communication barriers aren't visible, aren't tangible, and by and large aren't external, either.  They're internal.

There's a clear, logical, explainable reason for why we have such a hard time bridging the communication gap, why we place the blame for communication failure on others (or on ourselves) instead of focusing on finding ways to make the connection.

Ready for it?

Stigma is the internal barrier that prevents us from connecting with them - and vice versa.

If I think a distance is too far to walk, I can drive, take public transport or if I'm clever enough, event a new wheel to help me get there.

If I want to run a marathon but don't have the physical capacity, I can train - or, if that's not feasible for whatever reason, I can find other ways to participate.

The thing between us and accomplishing any goal is a barrier, and we understand this - education, practice, mentorship and play are all about finding ways to identify and overcome these barriers.

When it comes to communication, though, we don't see barriers - we only see personalities.

People who think like us, talk like us and often as not, look like us (gender, skin, uniform clothing) we can relate to - others, we can't.  I can't talk with that person.  They don't understand me.

But why?

As human beings, we are constantly categorizing things to identify what's a threat, what's an opportunity, and what doesn't matter.  It's not something we do consciously, 95% of the time, but it happens regardless.  

All animals do this.  It makes sense to have this skill and for it to be autonomic; if you can't identify a threat rapidly and from a distance - say, a predator or a peer with a communicable disease - your chances of surviving aren't very good.

There is a lot of diversity out there in the world, though - so how are we supposed to know the good from the bad, or the ugly?

Here's where the disturbing good news comes in.  

As with any process, we start with gross movements or gross assumptions; the more we practice, the more fine-tuned our abilities become.  Where it comes to perception, we start off very, very simple - the world is a black and white place.  Then we add shades of grey and focus on general groupings - everything that is black goes in one category - everything that's grey, in another, etc.

Can you tell the difference between a woman and a man at first glance?  Can you tell a stranger from a familiar face?  Here's a harder one - if you're not East Asian, can you readily distinguish individuals in a group of East Asians by their unique traits?  Can you audibly identify the difference between Arabic and Somali, if you don't speak either language?   Do you have trouble remembering foreign names?

Don't be ashamed if you do - you aren't alone.

We start with gross assumptions - if it looks like a man and acts like a man, it's a man.  If she looks like an African person, sounds not like a European person, then it's probably an African person.  We know what names sound like - we can recognize them when we hear them.  Unless they're unusual or foreign names, which may not register as anything other than sound.

If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it's probably a duck.  Or, if it looks like a predator or a sick person and acts like a predator or a sick person, maybe we should be wary.

It's a scientific fact that at a cognitive level, we have a tendency not to recognize people who aren't like us as even being people.  We don't talk to furniture, so why would we talk to a person in a wheelchair?  We wouldn't have sex with a bonobo, so why would we look as someone not of our race as a potential mate?

Perception starts simple, with basic reactions, then grows in nuance over time.  We go from syllogistic if A and B then C economics to a more nuanced, textured approach.  Part of this process is a shift in focus from what's threatening (four legs and big - threat!  Skin not like ours - threat!) to what's a point of common reference.

A transgendered person may make you uncomfortable, because they don't seem to fit your pre-existing cognitive categories.  A burn victim may feel threatening to you, although burn isn't contagious.  A mentally ill person who's acting wildly might seem like a threat, even if that isn't the case.

And conservatives and progressives might see each other as exact opposites, but the fact is they start from the exact same place.

Stigma is a focus on the differences; if you're always focusing on how an individual is either like you or not like you, you aren't judging them on their own merit.  When we fight against bias, we give ourselves the space to consider why we feel a certain way or what, separate from our feelings, is actually being presented.

What do we encourage people to do in the world of work?  Be like the people who are hiring.  What do we tell communicators?  Speak as simply as possible.

But what do we tell our kids?  Practice.  Discipline.  Veggies are good for you.  You won't know unless you try.

Humanity is enormously complex in its diversity; it's a skin we are slowly growing into.  We have come from a place of simplicity of thought and communication and, to be honest, we like things simple.  
Diversity is strenuous.

But it doesn't have to be a barrier.  If anything, diversity of genes and ideas is an opportunity - infinite combinations through infinite diversity means an infinite range of options, which are helpful in the long run.

Not in the short-run, though.  When the pressure is on and the resources are scarce, we are competitive and focused more narrowly on what is useful, threatening or not.

But we're not here for the short haul, and there isn't anyone coming to relieve us.  We're in this together for the long haul.

Which is why the conversation keeps moving in fits and spurts towards common ground.  

We're going to find we have all the time in the world for it.

Doors Closed: Inspiration and the Conservative Dream

I see tons wrong with this statement, though would agree that it does capture the spirit of our Parliamentary system which, in theory, is about motivated interest groups getting representatives into Parliament so as to hold the Queen's Government to account.

Only those motivated interest groups represented in Parliament are also forming government, meaning the special interest groups are supposed to hold themselves to account - but that's a topic for another day.

Right now, I want to focus on Poilievre's use of the word "inspire."  The Conservatives use a lot of words in ways other than they were intended to be used, ranging from positive terminology like "transparency" which to them, means anything but, or offensive terms like "tar baby" that are probably employed out of ignorance rather than contempt.

Let's take a look at the Conservative Dream and see how inspirational it truly is.

I have a dream - a dream of a Conservative Canada that is the envy of the nation for its strong governing hand at the till.

This is a nation that is build on the bounty of our natural resources - oil from Alberta, lumber from BC, Ontario and Quebec, minerals from all over the place and of course, our cheap, trades-skill oriented labour.

In my vision of Canada, we are a bastion of free trade - we sell off our resources for other people to make, then buy back the finished products.  We need never worry about the innovative process or whatnot, because we have an infinite supply of resources that other countries want.  See?  Free trade works in our favour, because we will always have what they want.

This Canada consists of a population of people that, wherever they come from, embrace one ideology (objectivism) and practice some form of monotheism.  The majority of the Canadians in this Canada are happy to punch their clock, do their job, then go home to their 2.5 kids (probably watched at home by one of the parents, preferably the mother) and watch TV on their flat-screen TV.  It's a perfect, packaged life with the odd vacation to Florida - simple, happy, uncomplicated, unchallenging.

There will be some Canadians, though, who strive for a bit more.  They want to be bosses, make big bucks and be the engines that drive our economy.  We want and should encourage these tough-minded entrepreneurs, because they're good for us (well, there's no us - that's sociology - but they're good for the economy).  These are the folk unafraid to bust some heads, have the fortitude to keep costs low and aren't frightened off by risks such as environmental degradation nonsense as they pull more and more resources from the ground.

My Canada is kept safe from troubles lapping at our shores by massive firewalls that, don't fret, will have no impact on free trade (just trust me on this) and kept safe internally by tough justice measures.  

Lots of jails in my Canada, and lots of courts, which is great - those are jobs, right?  But we don't want to have a bloated public sector, so maybe we should privatize these.  Private business does a much better job of fair management of things like justice than government does, anyway.

This is a Canada that is all about individual competitiveness, which comes from throwing kids into the deep end so they learn how to swim.  Social services are for the disabled and retarded (because really, if someone doesn't grow in the same way as the majority, they most have fallen behind, right?) who have no hope of contributing to society anyway.

And so we're clear, we know the difference between the retarded people and the evil criminals, so the right people will go to health institutions and the wrong ones will go to jail.  A key distinction.

But back to the tough, competitive individuals in the non-society that is my Conservative Canada.  They are a giving people, these Canadians - to Political Parties.  In fact, Politics is the number one charity people donate to!  They wouldn't want to give their money to poorly-managed Not-For-Profits who cater to people's weaknesses, and they certainly won't pay much in taxes - people hate taxes for the same reason they hate government, because it's too collective-y.

No, Political Parties inspire, or at the very least make others afraid and provide all the emotional validation people could want, like modern bread and circuses.  People love black-hat/white-hat entertainment and the idea of steady hands, strong governance, so they will spend their money investing in that strong hand at the till so that they can sit back and enjoy the ride without much effort.

In this Canada, people don't waste their time with things like art, which serves no practical purpose, or philosophy, which is all crap anyway.  They certainly don't commit sociology - heck, when everyone feels the same way about everything, there's no need to.  It's a better system.

This, then, is the Conservative Dream of Canada as I have seen it described by the Harper Conservatives.  

Tuesday 25 March 2014

The Danger of Unfettered Donations in Politics

Or, power and political donations.

Folk like Pierre Poilevre probably think they're being fiendishly clever by jigging our electoral process to make is so that the Political Parties capable of raising the most money are the ones most likely to sway more voters and stay in power.

Really, though, they're being tragically short-sighted.

When you become addicted to donations, you become enslaved to your donors.  As is the case with any addiction, more and more of your energy gets directed towards getting your next fix to the exclusion of all else.

The Conservative brain trust probably think this is a good thing, as it means that their base and like-minded donors will come to dominate Canada's political landscape in perpetuity.  This isn't the case.

Because the addiction will start to flow the other way, too.  We see this already - Political Parties are raising more and more money while Not For Profits are withering away because of a lack of funds and fundraising capacity.  

As corporations hold their capital and public services both shrink and fail to grow to meet civic need, we're going to see a growing rift between the addicted people with power and the expanding number of disenfranchised people.

There's historical precedent for what happens when this balance teeters to far out of whack.  But Empires don't worry about history, do they?

Which is why they fall.

Requiem For Democracy

Power is a drug.  At the very least, it's addictive.  As we all know, people on power trips do crazy things.  There are no surprises here - hungry people aren't rational.

In politics, being government is the pipeline to power.  For politicians and the operators who support them, forming government is the emotional equivalent to being on TV; you're nobody if you're not there, so getting there matters.

As our politics has become increasingly hyper-partisan, there's been a growing disconnect between those on the inside (who, regardless of their proximity to power, still feel like outsiders) and The Rest of Canada.

This highly-concentrated, dangerously unbalanced power distribution is where we came from.  Our particular brand of Parliamentary Democracy, starting with Magna Carta, was intended to circulate power to the rest of society, reducing the risk of unbalanced, power-mad monarchs at the top making irrational choices that impact negatively on the rest of us.

Yet we've been cycling back to that model, with power again being concentrated in the hands of a confrontational, irrational few who put the brand before the plan.

The increasingly concentrated doses of power consumed in the backrooms of politics are having the same sort of impact on our political people as they do on any addict - the difference being that these aren't people on the streets, they're the policy makers of the nation.

They (and our system on the whole) are spiraling out of control, just as it seems so many threads of our global social fabric are coming undone.

Somewhere in here is the A and B plot for an amazing movie, which I'll be sure to write when, you know, I'm not so busy.

But Clint Mansell has to do the score.  Can you just imagine what his theme for Requiem For Democracy would sound like?

Dear Alexis Pavlich, What the Hell is Wrong with You?

Chris Alexander


MP for Ajax-Pickering. Politics and public service for the common good.
Ajax, Ontario ·

Dear Alexis,

I sincerely hope this message pierces the partisan bubble you reside in and that you spend two minutes actually considering what it says.  

I would have tweeted, or even tried to LinkedIn message you, but you've got zero profile on social media.  That worries me, because it suggests you don't have much contact with the world beyond the Hill or a specific, non-blacklisted suite of stakeholders.

Let me be clear - I get it.  You're a partisan political staffer in a hyper-partisan environment.  You are probably told at staff meetings that it's kill-or-be-killed on the Hill, so don't be afraid to go for the throat, especially of those malicious Liberals.  Can't have Trudeau taking power away from the Conservatives, etc.

And yeah, when you get in a good hit, you may get a pat on the back from your partisan superiors - it's a bit like that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta's character gets out of jail.

But Alexis, listen to yourself.

What you are doing, consciously or not, is fueling the contempt Canadians hold for our political process.  Honestly, when you have a specific question raised to you about a genuine concern of real Canadians, it's not about what your opponent has or hasn't said.  It's not even about whatever frame you've wrapped your record in.

When people are honestly asking you a question that matters to them, don't make it about your party, your record or your opposition.  Be there with them, Alexis - treat them like their concerns actually matter and make it clear that you are listening to them (by actually listening to them).  That's what they want - a bit of humanity, to know that someone in government is at least trying to understand them.  And you might even learn something useful along the way.

By messaging and pivoting, you are failing at your job.  It's not your Minister or your Party who pays your salary, it's the Canadian public, and they want to know their government has their ear.  The press traditionally serves as a conduit for conversation between communicators like you and the masses - you could be doing it via Social Media, but again - no Twitter.

Communication isn't the same thing as messaging - it's about honest-to-God conversations.  You can't have a meaningful conversation without a bit of empathy for your partner and a bit of exposure of yourself.  Alexis, when you keep such a low profile to reduce yourself as an appreciable target, you make communication really, really hard.

I can only imagine you got into politics because you care about Canada - not because you wanted to pad your CV for a good private sector job down the road.  That's a leap of faith I am willing to take on your behalf, Alexis.  The kind of pronounce, defend and deflect messaging all Parties are using these days are harmful to Canada's increasingly fragile democracy.

This isn't your fault - it's a culture that's been warped by successive administrations over time.  What training you've received will have only reinforced this culture of isolated superiority, which is sad - it doesn't have to be that way.  

But now that I've brought you into the spotlight for a bit, Alexis, know that you, as a human being, are not constrained by that culture.  You have it in yourself to buck the trend and stand up for what you, and we, believe in.  

Transparency.  Honesty.  Integrity.  And above all, in the people themselves.

Through people like me, through agencies like Samara and groups like Citizen Bridge, by firms that do real communications like Swerhun and Exhibit Change and through the growing Open Government movement, you can become more than Ottawa's political culture constrains you to be.  There's a whole other world beyond the Hill that wants you to be part of it.

Busy though you may be, you owe it to yourself to get to know Canadians and the communities like those worried about the implications of imposed language/education requirements for spouses.  To make it a bit easier, use an analogy - think about how elderly couples felt when they were forced to separate due to gender constrictions in senior's homes.

More than that, as a paid staffer of the Canadian people, you owe it to us.

When you stop being part of the problem, you empower yourself to be part of the solution.

Canadians want you on our side, Alexis.  Please, help me - the next time I write about you, I don't want the title to be about how you're part of what's wrong - I want it to be about how you're part of what's right.

I believe you're up to the challenge, Alexis.  I'm hoping you prove me right.