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Saturday, April 06, 2013

A Whole New Era of Citizenship

Don Lenihan has identified in a recent post in iPolitics four ways that traditional politics is changing: a Post-Partisan Culture; Wicked Issues; Social Media; and Big Data. As a consequence he says these new forces “are transforming all major aspects of our politics: the party system, the complexity of policy issues, the nature of the policy process, how public debate is conducted, and (still to come), our technical skill at using policy to get the outcomes we want.”

However, the system of politics and our operating governance model have not fundamentally changed. In fact efforts such as moving beyond the “first-past-post” electoral system; efforts to reduce the toxic partisanship in the House; even efforts to give MPs more access to information have been consistently stonewalled or subverted.

As Lenihan remarks, “we remain locked in a political paradigm that was designed for a very different world — one defined by winner-take-all debates, simplistic policy solutions, a passive public, and ideologically-driven decision-making.”

Lenihan omits, however, one very salient feature in all of this – leadership. To make themselves more electable, parties have increasingly focused on marketing leaders rather than the retailing of ideas. Since the time of Ronald Reagan, political parties have recognized that the public voted for the man not the policy (a behaviour described by noble winning economist Daniel Kahneman). The voting challenge isn’t therefore to push the best ideas but to push an image of a person who would be seen as most likable by a plurality of voters. If voters could be assured that the candidate was “like them” then they could be comfortable with the candidate making all sorts complex decisions on their behalf. Reagan was so successful at this that people voted for him despite the fact they didn’t like his policies. This focus on the party leader also shifted attention away from individual MPs and MPPs to an extent that Trudeau (senior) once commented that “the only job of an MP is to get elected”. So politics is no longer about a “basket of ideas” or “the team” but the personalities of individual party leaders in much the same way as reality TV.

So here is the added problem. With so much of politics now being dominated by individual leaders, what happens when leadership itself, as a class, becomes increasingly undermined and loses its luster. In every field, leaders are taking a hit – either because they are unethical, incompetent or corrupt, or because they don’t have the capacity themselves to deal with ‘wicked’ problems where knowledge, resources and power are widely distributed among many people and organizations.

As Barbara Kellerman reminds us in her book “The End of Leadership” people are leaders because other people want to follow them. It’s followers who create leaders, not the other way around. And people will follow if they believe the leader is a) ethical and b) effective in helping the followers achieve what they want. But the capacity of leaders to lead is being constantly eroded both by the need to work collaboratively on complex problems and by social media and the internet that together are exposing the failings of leaders, personally and professionally, in a never ending parade.

In the past we could claim that these poor leaders were maybe isolated failings of imperfect men but on the whole leaders were decent, capable people worthy of followers. Today however, the unending procession of national, provincial, municipal, industry and not-for-profit leaders who have become publicly shamed, arrested, brought to court, or scandalized sends the very public and ongoing message that not only are these leaders not the romanticized heroes we thought they were but that they are also frequently self-serving, venal, narcissistic, and not too bright. And because of the memory of the Internet, it’s a message that keeps on accumulating in collective consciousness.

In a recent Nanos-IRPP poll only 9% of Canadians had confidence in the federal (Harper) government to solve issues of importance to them while twice that many 18% had no confidence whatsoever. This is a far cry from the 70-75% confidence level that existed in the 1970s. A recent MacLean’s magazine headline read “Contempt for the Whole Institution” referring to a growing public attitude towards the Senate, the institution of “sober second thought”.

Lenihan makes a plea to “capitalize on the momentum these forces are creating and fashion a new system of governance” but at the core of this transformation must be a willingness to forgo our addiction to leaders and leadership. In its stead, we will need stewards and stewardship to facilitate a growing number of empowered citizens. To resolve wicked problems we will require the skills, knowledge and practices of collaboration. Social media and the internet will not only give more people a voice but enable more people to contribute by facilitating the exchange of information and the building of communities of practice. Big data can provide the opportunity to have massive feedback loops that can keep everyone in the know when new policies and programs are experimented with as we learn our way collectively out of problems.

But the true post-partisan culture is one where citizens don’t abdicate their ownership obligations in society to parties and leaders. In the words of open source software guru Linus Torvald, “more eyeballs make fewer bugs”. The more citizens willing to act as co-partners in governance, the more innovation and the fewer problems we’re likely to experience. Canada, as Joe Clark once described, is “a community of communities” meaning that if we are to enable the full potential of this country, we need to find the means to bring together all the voices, all the perspectives, all the knowledge, all the resources and all the commitment of each of these communities. We can’t be satisfied with a ‘zero-sum’ game. So long as we as citizens are not willing to participate in our own governance, and are willing to leave it to a handful of others, so long we will be dissatisfied with the outcome. Needless to say, this would be a governance environment unlike anything we’ve experienced in the past. But that’s not a bad thing as President Obama has underscored for his own country saying, “we cannot win the future with a government built for the past.”

Just don’t expect the current crop of leaders who benefit from the status quo to create this new system of governance for you. Think DIY. Use Facebook and build a network. Connect to others. Tweet a little. Go have a beer with friends. But be conscious that you are an owner not a consumer of governance.


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