Sunday, December 13, 2009

Me, on JHR

Ben Peterson, founder and ED of Journalists for Human Rights, writes a fabulous blog full of excellent tips on building non-profits. I was honoured to be included among his roster of guest bloggers, writing on volunteer management. Based largely on my experience with Canada25, which had several hundred volunteers working at any one time, I did my best to summarize some of the things I learned on how to work well with volunteers. You can find my post here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's that time of year again...

....when newspapers and other publications make me feel further guilty about how many important things I have not read.

Here we have the Globe's 100 best reviewed books of the year. Despite having the desire to read about 25 of them, I've only actually read two, although I loved and recommend them both.

My success with the New York Times' notable books of 2009 was even worse. Thankfully, there was a small overlap with the Globe's list, and I scored one point.

Wish me luck for next year.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Some recent Samara posts

A few of my recent posts are available on the Samara site:

  • How minority governments could work, if history were to be a guide
  • A piece pondering if there's an ideal voter turnout, inspired by a great question I received while speaking at the NOW conference in Calgary
  • The POTUS-tracker, an excellent tool for those who want to know how the US President spends his time
  • A reminder (like we need it!) of the ugliness of politics
  • A summary of the pundits' take on our democracy, circa 2009
Comments welcomed from far and wide, either here or on the Samara site.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Notes from political engagement panel in Calgary

Here are the rough notes from a talk I gave at the NOW conference, organized around the Dalai Lama's visit to Calgary. The topic was young people's political engagement. We were asked to address the oft-stated comment that young people, despite their low voter turnout, are much more engaged than people realize, just not in the traditional ways.


A. I was first presented with this type of question about 8 years ago, as a result of my work with Canada25. More frequently, however, it was presented as "why don't young people vote more?" Usually, fingers point at one or more of the following four groups:
  • Young people themselves - lazy, apathetic, don't understand etc.
  • Parties or politicians - not inspiring, don't have a message that appeals to young people, don't provide accessible ways to participate
  • Media - too negative, focused on personalities or the horse race, turning us all off, and young people in particular (even more so in that they don't follow traditional news - see bullet one)
  • Our representative institutions - out of date, too complex or difficult to understand, uninviting or unappealing
B. While I don't know the reasons (and it's likely a combination of many), I'm not sure the the dichotomy set up in the initial question is productive. Both government and non-governmental ways of participation are important, and serve to both provoke but ultimately strengthen the other. Furthermore, we know that participation in one often leads to participation in (or at a minimum, understanding of) the other. More specifically:

Government has big bucks to spend, regulatory and agenda-setting power and the ear of the media. However, they are not the be all and end all.

Non-profit and civil society work is also crucially important to having a strong public sphere. It is a wonderful source of ideas, it provides important services to people, it helps educate the public. Furthermore, it serves as an important check on government power, and can be adversarial. This can push government and create better policy.

C. So that said, what do we know and not know about young people's participation? In short, what evidence is available suggests they don't really participate quite as much as we'd think. They vote far less. They're less engaged in other political activities (such as rallies and the like), and in other causes (e.g., the environment) or civic associations. Furthermore, their participation is not only lower than in other age cohorts, but it's falling, particularly since the 1970s. In addition, those with lower levels of education and income are even less likely to participate.*

The reasons for this are less known. Perhaps it's a stage-of-life issue (i.e., young people are doing "grown up stuff" like marrying, buying houses and having kids later). Perhaps it's generational (i.e., something particularly unique to young people today). And naturally, there's lots of stuff the stats don't capture.

For example, employment in non-profit and public service is growing, which may indicate people are more engaged through their employment. The internet is likely changing people's frames of reference, increasingly their awareness of public problems and perhaps making them feel greater affinity to them. Whether this translates to action over time remains to be seen. Finally, demographics may also play a factor. There are a lot of people in Gen Y, and they're said to be a very globally aware generation. As they come of age, they will invariably shape a form of public engagement as the last large cohort, the boomers, did in their youth.

D. That said, we still have good reason to be concerned about what appears to be a growing level of disengagement among all age cohorts. Voting, party membership, campaign participation, protests... all these activities are low and getting lower. Furthermore, polls suggest Canadians have pretty low levels of political knowledge, even after campaigns.

On one hand, Canada has, on the whole, pretty good government. But on the other, there are signs of drift. It's never healthy to take good government for granted. So we're back to where we started.... what is at issue and what should we do about it?

*Data are from the book Citizens by William Cross (part of the Canadian Democratic Audit).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Recent stuff on the future of journalism

There is no end to the ruminations on the future of journalism, newspapers and media in general. I'm heavily reliant on the Twitter-sphere to keep me abreast of the latest and greatest. My curation is modest at best, but here are a few I've enjoyed of late.

Over at the Samara blog I've listed a few events I've attended lately, including:
  • Mathew Ingram's talk at the TEDxTO conference
  • The CJF's recent panel , featuring Ira Basen and Rem Reider, exploring the changing media environment
  • A Samara-hosted lunch with the former editor of the's editor, Jim Brady, who talked about covering politics and public affairs in a changing media environment
I thoroughly enjoyed the different take on things presented by Maclean's editor Ken Whyte in his 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture, delivered at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB. If you care about journalism, newspapers, public debate and democracy, you should take a listen. The research he did into his book on William Randolph Hearst no doubt contributed greatly to the long view he takes.

I'm also looking forward to reading Alex Jones' book Losing the News. Alex is the director of the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the author of a great book on the family behind the New York Times. I loved their brown bags while I was a student there, and it's great to see them posted online now. Mark Bowden's piece in the Atlantic is also on the top of the pile these days.

Coming up: Those in Toronto may want to sign up for Ryerson's October 2 panel titled "What's Next for News," featuring media futurist Clay Shirky (read his latest ideas here) and Cult of the Amateur author Andrew Keen.

More recommendations welcome!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday evening giggle

My friend Sarah just sent me this. It's silly, but I found myself laughing aloud more than once (although I won't mention which lines provoked such a response). It's aimed at those 25-35, apparently, but I wouldn't limit oneself if they fall outside the range.


> -I would rather try to carry 10 plastic grocery bags in each hand than
> take 2 trips to bring my groceries in.
> -I wish Google Maps had an "Avoid Ghetto" routing option.
> -More often than not, when someone is telling me a story all I can
> think about is that I can't wait for them to finish so that I can tell
> my own story that's not only better, but also more directly involves
> me.
> -Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you
> realize you're wrong.
> -I don't understand the purpose of the line, "I don't need to drink to
> have fun." Great, no one does. But why start a fire with flint and
> sticks when they've invented the lighter?
> -Have you ever been walking down the street and realized that you're
> going in the complete opposite direction of where you are supposed to
> be going? But instead of just turning a 180 and walking back in the
> direction from which you came, you have to first do something like
> check your watch or phone or make a grand arm gesture and mutter to
> yourself to ensure that no one in the surrounding area thinks you're
> crazy by randomly switching directions on the sidewalk.
> -That's enough, Nickelback.
> -I totally take back all those times I didn't want to nap when I was younger.
> -Is it just me, or are 80% of the people in the "people you may know"
> feature on Facebook people that I do know, but I deliberately choose
> not to be friends with?
> -Do you remember when you were a kid, playing Nintendo and it wouldn't
> work? You take the cartridge out, blow in it and that would magically
> fix the problem. Every kid in America did that, but how did we all
> know how to fix the problem? There was no internet or message boards
> or FAQ's. We just figured it out. Today's kids are soft.
> -There is a great need for sarcasm font.
> -Sometimes, I'll watch a movie that I watched when I was younger and
> suddenly realize I had no idea what the f was going on when I first
> saw it.
> -I think everyone has a movie that they love so much, it actually
> becomes stressful to watch it with other people. I'll end up wasting
> 90 minutes shiftily glancing around to confirm that everyone's
> laughing at the right parts, then making sure I laugh just a little
> bit harder (and a millisecond earlier) to prove that I'm still the
> only one who really, really gets it.
> -How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?
> - I think part of a best friend's job should be to immediately clear
> your computer history if you die.
> -The only time I look forward to a red light is when I’m trying to
> finish a text.
> - A recent study has shown that playing beer pong contributes to the
> spread of mono and the flu. Yeah, if you suck at it.
> - LOL has gone from meaning, "laugh out loud" to "I have nothing else to say".
> - I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.
> - Answering the same letter three times or more in a row on a Scantron
> test is absolutely petrifying.
> - Whenever someone says "I'm not book smart, but I'm street smart",
> all I hear is "I'm not real smart, but I'm imaginary smart".
> - How many times is it appropriate to say "What?" before you just nod
> and smile because you still didn't hear what they said?
> - I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars teams up
> to prevent a dick from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers!
> - Every time I have to spell a word over the phone using 'as in'
> examples, I will undoubtedly draw a blank and sound like a complete
> idiot. Today I had to spell my boss's last name to an attorney and
> said "Yes that's G as in...(10 second lapse)..ummm...Goonies"
> -What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each other?
> - While driving yesterday I saw a banana peel in the road and
> instinctively swerved to avoid it...thanks Mario Kart.
> - MapQuest really needs to start their directions on #5. Pretty sure I
> know how to get out of my neighborhood.
> - Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the
> person died.
> - I find it hard to believe there are actually people who get in the
> shower first and THEN turn on the water.
> -Shirts get dirty. Underwear gets dirty. Pants? Pants never get dirty,
> and you can wear them forever.
> - I would like to officially coin the phrase 'catching the swine flu'
> to be used as a way to make fun of a friend for hooking up with an
> overweight woman. Example: "Dave caught the swine flu last night."
> -I can't remember the last time I wasn't at least kind of tired.
> - Bad decisions make good stories
> -Whenever I'm Facebook stalking someone and I find out that their
> profile is public I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who just got
> the Red Ryder BB gun that I always wanted. 546 pictures? Don't mind if
> I do!
> - Is it just me or do high school girls get sluttier & sluttier every year?
> -If Carmen San Diego and Waldo ever got together, their offspring
> would probably just be completely invisible.
> -Why is it that during an ice-breaker, when the whole room has to go
> around and say their name and where they are from, I get so incredibly
> nervous? Like I know my name, I know where I'm from, this shouldn't be
> a problem....
> -You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work
> when you've made up your mind that you just aren't doing anything
> productive for the rest of the day.
> -Can we all just agree to ignore whatever comes after DVDs? I don't
> want to have to restart my collection.
> -There's no worse feeling than that millisecond you're sure you are
> going to die after leaning your chair back a little too far.
> -I'm always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me
> if I want to save any changes to my ten page research paper that I
> swear I did not make any changes to.
> - "Do not machine wash or tumble dry" means I will never wash this ever.
> -I hate being the one with the remote in a room full of people
> watching TV. There's so much pressure. 'I love this show, but will
> they judge me if I keep it on? I bet everyone is wishing we weren't
> watching this. It's only a matter of time before they all get up and
> leave the room. Will we still be friends after this?'
> -I hate when I just miss a call by the last ring (Hello? Hello?
> Dammit!), but when I immediately call back, it rings nine times and
> goes to voicemail. What'd you do after I didn't answer? Drop the phone
> and run away?
> - I hate leaving my house confident and looking good and then not
> seeing anyone of importance the entire day. What a waste.
> -When I meet a new girl, I'm terrified of mentioning something she
> hasn't already told me but that I have learned from some light
> internet stalking.
> -I like all of the music in my iTunes, except when it's on shuffle,
> then I like about one in every fifteen songs in my iTunes.
> -Why is a school zone 20 mph? That seems like the optimal cruising
> speed for pedophiles...
> - As a driver I hate pedestrians, and as a pedestrian I hate drivers,
> but no matter what the mode of transportation, I always hate cyclists.
> -Sometimes I'll look down at my watch 3 consecutive times and still
> not know what time it is.
> -It should probably be called Unplanned Parenthood.
> -I keep some people's phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to
> answer when they call.
> -Even if I knew your social security number, I wouldn't know what do to with it.
> -Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car
> keys in a pocket, hitting the G-spot, and Pinning the Tail on the
> Donkey - but I’d bet my ass everyone can find and push the Snooze
> button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time
> every time...
> -My 4-year old son asked me in the car the other day "Dad what would
> happen if you ran over a ninja?" How the hell do I respond to that?
> -It really pisses me off when I want to read a story on and
> the link takes me to a video instead of text.
> -I wonder if cops ever get pissed off at the fact that everyone they
> drive behind obeys the speed limit.
> -I think the freezer deserves a light as well.
> -I disagree with Kay Jewelers. I would bet on any given Friday or
> Saturday night more kisses begin with Miller Lites than Kay.
> -The other night I ordered takeout, and when I looked in the bag, saw
> they had included four sets of plastic silverware. In other words,
> someone at the restaurant packed my order, took a second to think
> about it, and then estimated that there must be at least four people
> eating to require such a large amount of food. Too bad I was eating by
> myself. There's nothing like being made to feel like a fat bastard
> before dinner.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recent stuff...

A few recent posts I've done for Samara:

1. I had an op-ed in the Globe and Mail and received lots of comments. The original piece is here, and a summary of what I heard back is here.

2. Fall is almost upon us, and with it some great events looking to up our public discourse. Here are three that may be of interest. Others? Please let me know.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Some blogs (and one op-ed), published elsewhere

Most of my writing is posted to the Samara site of late. In case you've missed them, here are the highlights:

  • An op-ed, publised in the Globe and Mail, with a call for all of us to reinvigorate our public life
  • A first summary of some interesting writing on political leadership in Canada. If you have any other ideas, please let me know.
  • A piece on alumni associations for MPs
I will continue to post here periodically, but for more regular posts, please RSS here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Watch it here!

In the "media is dead, long live the media" discussions I'm always fascinated by the proliferation of new sites that appeal to the policy nerd in all of us (or maybe just me). We've been doing some research into the US and Canadian examples, and although none have yet cracked the sustainable business model challenge, it's encouraging to see so many efforts to bring news and opinion forward.

The latest to cross my radar in Canada is, a video forum for ideas on public issues and challenges. It's a bit like a video version of The Mark. They were kind (or foolish) enough to include me in their first taping, which you can watch here.e-another-new-online-public.aspx

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Shining a light on public service, Volume Two

It's rare these days to see someone, particularly when it's not their job, make the effort to engage thousands of Canadians on important issues of the day. That's what's so impressive about Shauna Sylvester and her Canada's World initiative. Over the past three years, Shauna has met with Canadians far and wide to gather their views on Canada's international policy.

We've written a short piece on the Samara blog about this process, including a short video of Shauna describing the whos and whats of it all. She's meeting with a number of policy makers and others from the foreign policy scene to share the results, and I'm sure she'll regularly update us on how the work is progressing through the CW site.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Shining a light on public service, Volume One

Last year while working on the concept that became Samara, I had the opportunity to speak with several hundred Canadians who were interested in the country and the strength of our public life. One commonly-cited observation was how little we do to shine light on positive examples of public policy development, public leadership and service in Canada. Many asked Samara to consider doing this as part of its work.

While there are awards of many types (e.g., the federal government's Public Service Awards of Excellence or Showcase Ontario's initiative to do the same in that province, and the Public Policy Forum recognizes public leaders at its annual dinner), it is true that stories of these types aren't typically in the news and rarely resonate beyond the award presentation.

While this is lamentable, it is also understandable. Public service is often anonymous, done quietly and without fanfare. Government employees almost always avoid the limelight - in fact, this is the expectation of them. However, a little good news never hurt anyone, so we're regularly writing up short stories of exemplary public service and will post them on the Samara blog.

Our first one features Vickie Cammack, the co-founder of PLAN. This organization, which provides information and resources to families of people with disabilities, developed a Registered Disability Savings Plan. The RDSP is similar to an RRSP or a pension through which caregivers can contribute to the future of a disabled friend or relative. Through the 2008 federal budget it became available to all Canadians. You can read more here, or by visiting PLAN's website.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The beauty in following, in a participatory way

I attended two talks last week that helped me think about how Samara can help create opportunities for Canadians to meaningfully contribute, in small, fun and accessible ways, to issues that matter to them. Friends know this has been a long-time interest of mine, something I've reflected on for years and regret not writing more about.

If you're interested, here are the highlights on presentations by Barbara Kellerman and David Eaves. And if you're really interested, please get in touch with any advice and stay tuned for more from Samara on this front.

Talk #1: Kellerman was at Rotman talking about her new book on followership. She's a leadership scholar at Harvard, and correctly points out that you can't have leaders without followers. Given technological and historical/political trends, she predicts that in this century, followers will be more important than they've ever been before.

This felt a bit "no duh" for awhile, but then she outlined two things that got me thinking. The first was a typology of followers, developed in light of the fact that we too often think of followers as a monolithic group (think "my constituents" or "my employees"). She outlined five types of followers, ranked from low to high based on their level of engagement.
  • Isolates: Those who do nothing, and as a result, strengthen those with the upper hand.
  • Bystanders: Those who observe but deliberately do nothing and therefore tacitly support the status quo (e.g., many Germans circa 1933)
  • Participants: Favour or oppose leaders and care enough to invest something in it (e.g., Merck employees who alternately hid and highlighted the Vioxx problems)
  • Activists: Those who feel strongly and act accordingly to support or unseat their leaders (e.g., the Catholics who organized to in response to the sexual abuse crises in their church)
  • Diehards: Those who are prepared to die for a cause (e.g., suicide bombers, soldiers)
The second was the reminder that "most of us, on most issues, are followers most of the time." With the typology in mind, and not wanting to be a bystander when I shouldn't be, I called the VoxBox to suggest a different angle on a story that's really bothering me. Small step, I know, but better than nothing. I'll leave the diehard stuff to others.

Talk #2: David Eaves, who writes a terrific blog, negotiates and thinks big thoughts for a living, came to Samara to present his thinking on how technology and social change are transforming (or should transform) public policy development and public service delivery. Building on the work of economist Ronald Coase, internet thinkers Clay Shirky, David Weinberger and journalist Chris Anderson (0f long tail fame), Eaves argues that governments and other public service-seeking organizations need to orchestrate themselves for transparency, participation and collaboration to harness the "long tail." It is these features that will ensure legitimacy and success into the future.

This can be a lot to get one's head around, so he cited a few examples (which he's also written about): Mozilla, the 911 emergency service, Canada25 and space travel. He also highlighted some bright lights of change he's seeing in Ottawa.

My takeaway? This is going to require a little bit more of all of us. This means contributing when we can and, recognizing that things are more open than ever before, going a little easier on people to who are experimenting and may stumble from time-to-time. Samara looks to profile individuals or organizations who are working on the future of public service; ideas are very welcomed.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Star-studded week in policy wonkdom, take two

It's been a star-studded week of international policy-wonkdom here.  After the Bush/Clintondiscussion last week, tonight Toronto welcomed four international development thinkers and activisits to debate whether foreign aid is doing more harm than good.  

The third in an installment from the Munk Debates, the evening was designed (in the words of the event's benefactor Peter Munk) to provide a "stimulus to people so they're more familiar and comfortable participating [in the world]." It can be tough to stay looped into important international debates from Toronto, so this is a welcomed initiative. 

To give away the punchline, the guys arguing for good won.  Stephen Lewis and Paul Collierstressed the necessity of aid as a transitional tool, coupled with other necessary tools such as governance and security, to enable capital formation and infastructure development and alleviate suffering, particularly at the grassroots.  

The "harm" team consisted of Dambisha Moyo and Hernando de Soto.  de Soto stressed the need for property rights, without which there would be no peace (witness 15+ recent African wars over property and boundry rights) and no ability to generate capital (witness our First Nations' reservations, an example he cited several times).  Moyo argued that 60 years and $1 trillion of aid has done nothing to help Africa grow or reduce poverty, and worse, allows African countries to abdicate their responsibility to provide public goods to their citizens. Instead, she encouraged a mix of foreign direct investment, capital market activity and trade.

My favourite moment was in Collier's closing when, in reference to pending decisions Canada must make in Haiti,  he turned to the audience and explained, "you get the aid policies you deserve.  [Those you've received] have been gesture politics... you have to get up to speed [so] we can repeat the successes of 60 years ago when aid helped Europe."  This reminded me of asimilar comments fromGeneral Andrew Leslie in reference to the army being at the service of we the citizens.

You can listen to the full debate on CBC Radio's Ideas on June 8, and it'll be available on CPACtoo (previous Munk Debates are available to watch too).  You can also get a flavour for the discussion now by reading some of the advance media or following the live-blog discussion.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dispatch from the Bush/Clinton

As most Torontonians likely know (particularly if they attempted to drive along Front Street yesterday afternoon), former American presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in town talking to each other yesterday, ably facilitated by former New Brunswick premier and Canadian ambassador to the US Frank McKenna.

I posted a quick summary of the highlights here, but below is a longer report on the event that, I hope, fills in the blanks from the mainstream media's coverage* of the event. 

After a sprinkling of opening remarks, Clinton took the stage.  By this point, we were about 45 minutes behind schedule, which I found mildly annoying given that 5,000 people had spent between $200 and $2,500 each to be there.  Michael (my co-attendee) mused it was likely due to the backlog of photo-ops, later confirmed by a friend who attended said photo-op.

Clinton opened with a short quip equating the audience's expectations for a show-down to a 21st century version of the Roman coliseum, followed by an acknowledgment and thanks for the Canadian sacrifices, human and financial, in Afghanistan and for David Miller's role as chair of the C40, a group of cities committed to tackling climate change.

He then talked about the transition from President to the job description-less position of former President.  He described life in the Oval Office as "a constant struggle between doing what you promised and dealing with incoming events."  To much of the prior and you look like an idiot ignorant of current realities, too much of the latter and you're a good steward, but you haven't stayed true to the country's founders' desire for "a more perfect union."  Next thing you know, it's all over and you need to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.

Perhaps in a preview to how he'd like history to see him, he cited a handful of ex-presidents who went on to greatness in their post-presidential lives.  John Quincy Adams, who was a leading proponent to end slavery. Taft, who went on to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Teddy Roosevelt who started a national political movement.  Hoover, who reorganized the federal government into a structure that largely survives to this day.

He then talked about how he's "switched places" with Hillary, who while he was in office was very active in the charitable sector.  Although he has to watch what he says ("she gets asked if I give the wrong answer," he said), he gives speeches, works on climate change, obesity and of course, on international development through his foundation.

Next he segued to his views on public service.  Here, he had three points (none, by the way, of which were really reported in the media accounts I heard or read).  The first was the message that "we should all do something like this [in reference to his rule, which is if you're going to attend his meeting, you have to do something]... we live in an interdependent world and we can't escape each other's fate." He cited the environment, the financial crisis and the swine flu threat as three examples.  Next he highlighted that one does not have to be an ex-president or a millionaire to do it.  For example, if Canadians want to help Afghanistan, they can visit to become a micro-lender, helping their citizens.  Third, he encouraged everyone to work to fill the gaps that public policy and a vibrant economy will never fill, which are largely the "how" parts.  "I try to find people in a how mentality who want to be in the how industry," he said.  As I noted here, he uses the inability of signatory states to meet the Kyoto commitments (kindly he didn't mention Canada, although he could have).

Next came Bush, whose tan and relaxed demeanor suggested the Texan lifestyle was agreeing with him.  As the media reported, he was full of jokes.  My favourite equated Laura's prodding of him to do the dishes with "his new domestic policy agenda."  I also chuckled at his comment that "Clinton and I used to believe in free speech," a not-so-subtle reference to their speaking fees, rumoured to be somewhere between $150,000 and $300,000.

He's spending his days writing a book, scheduled for release in November 2010 (with a good amount of self-deprecation, he acknowledged that many suggested he couldn't even read a book, but he'd prove 'em wrong!).  "History has a way of changing pretty quickly," he said, "[this will] stake my claim to eight years of the presidency so people understand why I made the decisions I made."  He's also working on a library at the Southern Methodist University that will "continue to press the freedom agenda."

He then told a story about the call he received from the Japanese prime minister after 9/11, who pledged his commitment to the United States.  Bush spoke fondly at this point, recalling that 60 years earlier, his father had signed up to fight the Japanese in World War Two, and now the president of that nation called him to offer support.  In those intervening years, Bush said, "Japan moved to freedom... 60 years is a nanosecond in history."

He closed citing freedom from disease and free trade as other important liberties, and stressed his "optimism about the future."  "I look forward to being a part of it," he said.

The discussion then turned to the Q&A, masterfully (I thought) facilitated by Frank McKenna.  There were seven in total.  Below is a very brief summary of each.

Q1: Afghanistan and the way forward?

WJC: The main issue is what to do now.  Pakistan is important.  We know the Afghans want to be free and not run by the Taliban and we have to salvage things.  We have good people on the case and should stay with them.

GWB: Democracy is an ideology against haters.  This is worth it, and it's in our self-interest to spread democracy. "It's the worst form of elitism" to have it and not wish it on others.  Democracy and change takes time.  Look at the US - people in the administration have great grandparents who were slaves.  It takes time.

Q2: Cuba

GWB: I didn't appreciate it when my predecessors criticized me, although (looking to Clinton) "he never did."  [Ed: I'm assuming he's referring to Jimmy Carter or to Ford's embargoed interview, since his father is the only other living ex-president].  In short, the US should keep the embargo in place.

WJC: "My view is influenced by what the Secretary of State says on the matter."  We can't walk away from countries we don't agree with (e.g., China).  Cuba does great (e.g., help in Haiti) and unacceptable things.  "I'd like Congress to give the President the power to see where we can take this thing... it's an error for us to write this off or just make money down there and not care about the people."

Q3: Why didn't you intervene in Rwanda? (to Clinton)

WJC: It's one of the greatest regrets of my presidency, along with a large regret of the National Security staff.  We didn't have a meeting in the White House about it.  We didn't know it would get so bad as fast.  There was hostility in Congress about Bosnia and Somolia (Black Hawk Down).  In six months, it was all over.  We couldn't have saved all the lives, but we could have saved 300,000. I  have to live with that for the rest of my life.  Now, he's doing everything he can to make it up to them (e.g., helped raise the money for a holocaust museum, helps prevent AIDS/HIV).  Told several extremely touching stories about Rwandans he's met or heard of, including one cab driver who, when talking to a reporter who wanted him to criticize Clinton, said, "Yeah, sure, he should have helped.  But so should have a lot of other people.  And he's the only one who's come here to apologize."  Hopes it helped hasten the US' response in Kosovo, where they got in right away and only 10,000 lives were lost. [Ed: this was the most touching moment for me]

Q4: Darfur (to Bush)

GWB: There is a role for all of us.  We sent supplies and helped with logistics.  We accepted the UN recommendation not to go in unilaterally to another Muslim country.  Once you decide not to act unilaterally you have to rely on international cooperation, which is slow and difficult.   They needed other countries to apply pressure. The UN, with all due respect, "is not meant for problem solving."  (e.g., China, which is driven largely by economic development, needs energy so won't support action).  "Diplomacy only works when there's leverage."  He then said, "we moved a lot of food... the problem is.... well, enough said" and sat back in his chair.  [Ed: I wish he'd said more.]

WJC: This mirrors the challenge he had getting NATO allies into Bosnia, where the US was also criticized for not going in fast enough.  One can't compare Darfur to Rwanda.  "He [Bush] did all he could do.... we had all this manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan."  Providing logistics and asking others to help can work (e.g., that's what they did in East Timor, where the Australians and the Thais sent people).  "Even Darfur advocates said we shouldn't be doing it alone."

GWB (to Clinton in reference to Rwanda): You were too hard on yourself.  You can't just pick up the phone and order 20,000 troops.

WJC: If I'd seen what was going to happen more clearly than we did, we could have saved 250,000-400,000 people.

[Ed: this was an interesting exchange - it was almost like they were trying to one-up each other in support!]

Q5: Same sex relationships/repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act/Ask Don't Tell

GWB: There is a difference between rights and marriage.  Clinton handled the military issue the right way.  If they military has changed, they can make a recommendation to the president.  You don't cram political decisions down the throats of your military.

WJC: [Ed: I'm not doing justice to his response, largely because I got a bit lost in the "ask don't tell" details].  I was trying to starve off anti-gay legislation/constitutional amendments that were coming.    His view on gay marriage is evolving.  Agrees with the Canadian position.

Q6: Passport to cross the border (see here for more on this).

GWB: We had a very different strategy.  "Let me be frank, Frank," I'm not sure what happened.  What happened to Easy Pass?  I'm opposed to Buy America provisions.

WJC: I, like most Americans, didn't know anything about this.  In an interdependent environment when insecurity goes up, one's sense of control does too.  No doubt all kinds of scenarios were developed (e.g., the millenium bomber).  Should have a better system.  "You've got my attention on this so I'm going to take it back home."

Q7: HIV/AIDS in Africa

[Ed: due to the late start and an evening commitment I had, I had to leave without a complete documentation of this answer, but I did catch Clinton's summation, "once you take a communitarian position and realize we're going to go up or down together, party differences matter less."  Hopefully a message for all of us to remember.]

 *To save you the Googling, here are a few links: the Globe's Ian Brown here, the Star's Rosie DiManno here and the New York Times' here.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A few of my favourite things (lately anyway)

We've had a good few weeks, welcoming people to our growing team and gathering some excellent advice from a number of former MPs on our MP Exit Interviews.  We're also hard at work developing some thinking on the evolution of the news media and what it might mean for our journalism projects (details to come in future posts).

In the meantime, I'm digesting (or aspiring to digest) a wonderful list of Samara-esque tidbits friends have shared recently:

1. Tim sent me Newseum's interactive map that allows you to click on the front pages of the world's newspapers.  Readers of earlier posts will know this isn't helping my problems any!

2. Some big names in US news media (including Google's Marissa Mayer, the Washington Post's Steven Coll and the needs-no-introduction Ariana Huffington) testified at the US Senate's hearing on the future of journalism.  Several people have asked me if I think Canada would engage in such a conversation.... thoughts?  Anyone keen?

3. From TVO, a beta site that attempts to lift the veil on the often obtuse world of government, politics and policy. It also links to The Agenda, my favourite source for Canadian issue-oriented podcasting.

4. And while we're on the topic of public broadcasting, a survey on Canadian's perceptions of the CBC.  They were more positive than I would have thought.

5. A new book, Open and Shut, from Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson on "why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper."  I still miss Ibbitson's columns on Ottawa and I'm looking forward to reading his book.  If you care about these issues, the Globe apparently has a wiki and blog dedicated to them, but with their new design my links are dead and I can't seem to recover them.

6. And last but not least, one of the few pieces that tries to humanize politicians and reward those who are doing a particularly good job.  Maclean's annual "Parliamentarians of the Year"recognizes Jason Kenney (best overall), Bob Rae (best orator), Megan Leslie (best rookie), Peter Stoffer (most collegial), Bill Casey (best represents constituents), Paul Szabo (hardest working) and Joe Comartin (most knowledgeable).  We don't say it enough - thank you for your service.

Anything else come across your desk lately?  Please feel free to add it in the comments, or send us a note and we'll include it in future posts as appropriate.

Monday, May 04, 2009

New Cdn media product emerges: The Mark

One of my favourite elements of my job is the opportunity to meet Canadians doing innovative things to make our country a more vibrant and exciting place.  A bunch of months ago I met two guys working to get an online news and opinion forum off the ground.  Their project is called The Mark, and today, it launched in beta

Their premise is that there are thousands of thoughtful Canadians, living here and abroad, with interesting experiences and ideas who lack a forum in which to publish their ideas.  The Mark is hoping to do something about that, and become a "national movement to record Canadian ideas and propel the people behind them."

I'm having fun scrolling through the articles, many by people I don't know.  I loved this one about the social media fatigue by a brilliant-sounding Canadian studying in San Francisco what sounds like a topic near and dear to my heart.  I enjoyed learning a bit more about Obama's time in law school and I'm looking forward to following the indomitable Tzeporah Berman's posts on the environment.  I also did my bit, and wrote about the game of mutual destruction underway between media and parliaments I've observed lately and how we're working to help.

The upside?  It's a new, fresh media product emerging from the rubble of the old.  They keen to hear from a wide range of people interested in contributing to their ideas and are willing to work with you to make that happen.  In fact, they've already amassed an impressive and diverse list of contributors, few of whom I've ever seen in the mainstream media.    

The downside?  Well, you won't get paid which, given the challenges facing our dear old media industry, makes me further worry about how we sustain good public affairs journalism (more on that in future posts!).  However, for those out there with a love of ideas (or who, like me, are wannabe journalists at heart), we can do worse than taking the time to participate by checking out the site regularly or if the inspiration strikes, consider contributing.

I'm curious what you think of this new site, and of course, I always welcome feedback on my own article.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Your advice please: how to manage a love affair

I really loved this piece by Jonathan Kay on his love affair with newspapers (the paper kind): how he came to love them and why he loves them still.  His point on the responsibility they provoke on their readers is bang on and he put into words a sentiment I, as an active subscriber to dead trees, have never been able to do.  

Newspapers (and other forms of the printed word), by sitting there, remind us that "the world is sending you homework."  And doing homework is an important part of everyone's responsibility to themselves and the world around them.

I share Jon's love and his belief in the importance of the daily reminder not to be intellectually lazy, even if it means waking up with newsprint on your cheek.  It's something that the web, in all its fabulousness, just doesn't do.  Newspapers and their brethren remind me why it's important to remain curious about lots of things.  Furthermore, like my mother did when I was young, they remind me that I have to do my daily bit of homework.

Perhaps my mother was too successful, though, as I have dug myself into a paper habit that threatens to overtake me.  I share Jon's newspaper (albeit more limited... this one comes Monday-Saturday and this one on Sunday), and an even worse magazine habit.  Like with a good bar of chocolate or bottle of red wine, once I start I can't stop.  

I'm overwhelmed.  My house is stacked with dusty reading material that I can't part with until it's at least skimmed.  I'm killing trees.  I think it's important to stay in touch, challenged and engaged, but I'm feeling guiltier by the day.  And there's only so much guilt one can healthily handle.

Dear readers, I need your help.  Here's where I'm at:

I've tried to cull, to some success (e.g., I cancelled this one, this one and this one, as they were the last ones I'd read, but my decision on the latter made me feel guilty for not supporting the Canadian magazine industry so I resubscribed one year later).  

I've tried resisting, to greater success (e.g., sometimes Rogers sends me Canadian Business and Chatelaine for free for a couple of months and I so want to subscribe, even though the copies are still sitting unread beside the toilet, but I don't; when Conde Nast launched Portfolio I confined myself to the newsstand copies only, thank goodness).  

I've also tried aggregating, largely through an ever-growing list of web tools (including this one, great for headlines and for following the future of news discussion, and this one) plus the wisdom of friends.  However, I'm finding all these feeds and recommendations are only furthering and not alleviating my guilt (e.g., I have so many unread blog posts and browser windows with half-read Twitter links that I'm drowning).

And this doesn't include my book habit, which is another matter all together, or my favourite podcasts or my attempts to get a more global perspective.

So here's where I'm at now.  I get Maclean's for a general overview and out of loyalty to the publication (I'm a third generation subscriber), to friends that work there and to a belief in the importance of strong current affairs magazines to any country's democracy (i.e., it's not going anywhere).  I get Spacing and the Walrus and read Corporate Knights for the same reason.  

Toronto Life is fun, so it comes monthly, as does House & Home, a great gift for an otherwise design-impaired new homeowner (thanks SCR!).  

I get the New Yorker to make me smarter and remind me what I loved about living in the US when I did.  And the NYT magazine comes on Sundays.  Oh, and I also get this and this at work, and recently this, due to another generous gift, also turned up.

What's a girl to do?  Advice?  What do you read?  What would you recommend?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good idea of the day, second in a series: safely getting rid of dangerous stuff

I was away in early April so somehow missed the annoucement of this very cool website that makes it a little bit easier to get rid of old dangerous garbage.  You know, the stuff that can't go away through the normal garbage or recycling process so instead takes up room in basements across the province.

If, like me, you've actually MOVED this stuff from one residence to another, this site is a particular godsend.  Last spring I moved neighbourhoods, packing up and taking with me a collection of dead batteries, an old television and a spyware-infested laptop (the latter making its second move).  A combination of laziness and lack of car prevented me from hauling it to the appropriate municipal depot, so instead it's been busy collecting dust in the otherwise unused garage alongside the paint cans left by the previous owner.

Now I can type in my postal code and the hazardous or e-waste I want to get rid of, and voila, a long list of drop-off points appear before my eyes.  Who knew there were 11 e-waste options within 5 kms of my house?

If the stuff is still there next year, I only have my laziness to blame.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The business model for newspapers isn’t toast, but it’s in the toaster"

Because I promised, and you already know I'm slow, here's a dispatch from the investigative journalism conference I attended in Berekely, CA in early April.

Overall, it was a good couple of days that largely showcased various investigative stories on corruption and the journalists who uncovered them (this Frontline doc was the feature).  It was a clubby affair of many long-serving journalists from the major branded news outlets, and I was generally fascinated listening to the undercurrent of it all, which was naturally the "what the heck happened to our industry?"  My favourite quote was from Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, who began his remarks with the quip, "the business model for newspapers isn't toast, but it's in the toaster." [as an aside, later that week I read that he equated saving the Times to saving Darfur, so he obviously has a gift for the soundbite]

The most interesting and useful session, given Samara's objectives, was the last one on the future of investigative journalism (glad I didn't duck out early).  You can read the details here.  My favourite panellist was Esther Kaplan from The Nation Institute.  The group has been around since 1966 and was created to address the bias in the independent press to write opinion pieces since no one had the resources to do reporting.  These days she's getting more and more requests from freelancers, bloggers and new journalists for mentoring and support since there aren't a lot of older people around newsrooms to help anymore.  She said, "I feel like I'm the social safety net for independent journalists."  This jives with some of our early thinking at Samara, where we've identified some big gaps on the professional development side for those doing public affairs journalism - regardless of the medium.  For example, there's really no media and public policy course taught in our journalism schools, save for a bit at Carleton.  Nor is there much support provided to practising journos, whether attached to media organizations or working independently.  In any event, we've promised to stay in touch on our respective efforts.

I was also reminded of some of the things I miss most about living and working in the States (of course, there's much I don't miss).  Specifically, despite my best efforts, I didn't know the half of the tremendous proliferation of interesting media experiments happening all over the US.  I lost count of the number of foundations and wealthy individuals funding journalism and investigative work of varying sorts.  There were also a number of local news experiments (this and this were particularly interesting, and these examples don't even begin to scratch the surface on the local news front).  I also learned of some neat university collaborations, news literacy projects, workshops and incubators, legal collaboratives, global networks of reporters.... the list goes on.  In short, a lot for us to learn from, and we'll share what we find with you as we get into the details.

On a final note, one of the major threads running through the conference (besides the "what the heck" stuff I mentioned earlier) was the need for journalism to be more "collaborative."  There were a couple of examples of people doing apparently radical things like talking to each other and even going as far as sharing ideas and sources within and across news organizations!  The horrors!  I was a bit shocked, frankly, as none of these "radical" things seemed all that radical to me.  I suppose I didn't appreciate how the old model, where resource constraints weren't so real, may have limited creativity quite so much.  I'll leave it to Dave Eaves to analyze that nut further.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Good idea of the day, hopefully the first of a series

In yesterday's post I complained that I wasn't reading enough about what we little people could do (or are doing) to carve out some meaningful space for debate, discussion or action on our public challenges.

Well, leave it to my inspired colleague Reva Seth to coincidentally pass on this cool little story about two Brits who, after ranting in person and on Facebook about those free commuter newspapers that litter public transit 'round the Western world, decided to offer an alternative.  Called "Choose What you Read," they hand out free books at various London Underground stations every Monday to encourage those who want it an alternative to these insipid dailies.  At its heart, however, is a desire to encourage diversity of thought and active choice about the ideas one consumes.

A small example, but an important one.  Worth a read, and a thought.  Or two.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When you're holding a hammer...

I'm always wary of falling into the trap encapsulated by that old adage "when you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail."   Caveat notwithstanding, I've been hearing and reading a lot of stuff lately that speaks to what we're working on at Samara: namely, how we can spark projects that encourage a culture of public service in Canada by strengthening the interconnected areas of political leadership; citizen's connections to ideas and the media's contribution to public affairs.

Before I share a few of these with you, I thought I'd explain how we came to this ambitious and still amorphous goal (and of course welcome your reactions and ideas).  While naturally our own experiences and passions were important, in large part Samara grew from the 200+ interviews we conducted last year with Canadians across the country.  We pursued three lines of inquiry: how did they view the public policy landscape; what was working/where were the gaps; and how could a small charitable initiative could help to fill those gaps.

I'd expected a laundry list of the usual policy complaints (healthcare, immigration etc.) but instead, the identified gaps were broader than any one issue, and included things like: our political culture, the way our media frame and elucidate issues, the fact that many citizens are disillusioned or worse, don't care, the disfunction of our Parliament and our political parties.  It's almost as though the incentives everyone has to be expedient in the short term has led to a situation that doesn't serve any of our long-term interests. 

These are tricky things to tackle, but our hope is to get some small, practical projects off the ground this year and see how we go.  We'll surely learn a lot, and will do our best to share that with you as we go, and invite your participation.

In the meantime, the few things I've noticed recently are listed below.  These focus mostly on the intersections between parliaments and the media.  I'd like to see a bit more on the responsibility we as citizens have as well - to read, watch, listen and work understand, to ask questions when we don't (including of our journalists and politicians) and to do our part to improve things, even in a small way - but I've likely just missed it.  

In any event, here goes:
  • CTV's Craig Oliver's acceptance speech for the Hy Solomon journalism award, where he laments the inability of MPs to demonstrate independent thought and the corresponding failure of Parliament to be "a house of ideas" that better reflects the discussions we should have.  You can listen or watch it here. He takes his fair share of shots at his profession and the "punditocracy" too.  He was moving and also very funny (as, unexpectedly, was Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall in his opening remarks - well worth the 5 minutes if you have them.  I wonder if Ottawa is in his future...).  
  • Jim Coyle's column in The Star on the way politicians and journalists demean Parliament and in doing so, delegitimize both their professions and themselves.
  • Elizabeth May's interview with Jian Gomeshi on CBC Radio to promote her seventh book on the crisis of Canadian democracy.  My personal preference is to reserve words like crisis for countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka, but that aside, she said gutsy things that I don't hear a lot of politicians talk about.
  • The March 5th At Issue panel about what a joke Question Period is, particularly at a time when we're looking for real discussion about real issues, and how the media doesn't do much to make things better either.
And this doesn't include the myriad articles on the state of journalism (where the crisis word is used quite liberally, and perhaps with good reason).  Much more to come there, but in the meantime, NYU's Jay Rosen's seminar on the future of news is an absolute must.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dispatch from McGill's Public Policy in Crisis #2: No marks for timeliness, but maybe one for political science 101

It has been nearly two weeks since I was in Montreal for the Public Policy in Crisis conference, which I appreciate is a lifetime or two in blog-land.  However, many of you* wrote to say that you enjoyed the dispatch so I thought I'd make it the first of at least two.

While the evidence panel was my favourite panel, my favourite individual speaker was Peter Russell, the long-time constitutional scholar from the University of Toronto.  Addressing the conference theme, he spoke to the two crises that underlay Canada's "Parliamentary crisis," now better known by the (previously-unbeknownst-to-me) term prorogation.

In Russell's analysis, crisis number one was our fiscal and economic policy (basically a badly- crafted budget that lacked consultation and ignored the economic crisis).  The prorogation, he argued, improved this crisis by allowing the implementation, in record time, of a budget that was better and developed with debate and consultation.

With crisis number two, which is our policy for dealing with parliamentary government, especially in a minority situation, Russell argued that we Canadians are not so lucky.  The request to prorogue laid bare the fact that too few of us, including the PM and his advisors, are either a) aware of or b) willing to adhere to the principles of parliamentary government or the functions of those within it.  The details are less important, but the upshot is that if, like me, you a)believe we're in for a series of minority parliaments in the years to come and/or b) want to improve the function of government in Canada, we should do our part to learn a little more about how it's supposed to work. 

Fortunately, Russell and a gaggle of experts constitutional have made this a little easier for us by writing down the rules in the Toronto Star.  He also pointed out that, "we're not in good shape if a handful of constitutional experts need to say this when... we need consensus [among the governing party and the public] for Parliament to work and we don't have that." So please do your bit!

He closed with a small rant on the weakness of our Parliament and its disconnect from policy making and from citizens (incidentally, one of my hobby horses of late).  Proving he was an equal opportunity critic (the PM and his crew took a real beating), he expressed frustration at the sentiments of one Liberal MP, who said in this Parliamentary session his party would focus on enforcing the government's "probation," rather than proposing policy ideas that can be stolen by the Tories.  "Have we not had enough?" Russell asked.  "Policies should be discussed!"  Amen.

*I say many meaning more than "a couple," however as a new blogger I am heartened by any reader feedback, so please keep it coming!  And feel free to use the comments section too.

Coming up: More dispatches, this time from the Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium I attended in Berkeley this past weekend.  It reminded me of a few things I missed about living in the U.S., in particular, the willingness of private philanthropy to step in creatively in issues of public importance (although not always for the right reasons or with good outcome).  If your curiosity is getting the better of you, Mark Glaser blogged from the event.  See his April 4 and 5 posts.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dispatch from McGill's Public Policy in Crisis: Where are the bridges?

On Friday I attended the Public Policy in Crisis conference at McGill, hosted by the always inspiring Antonia Maioni.  It asked two things: a) is public policy in crisis? and b) how is public policy affected by crisis (and more specifically, the GEC*)?

Lots of smart people there had lots of different opinions, but here's my take on the answers.  For (a), the collective wisdom generally thought yes, but probably not as much as the institutions that surround it, specifically Parliament and the media.  For (b), like most people opining on the GEC, no one really knows what's going to happen, but there was general agreement that policy sure is going to matter more than it has in recent years.  

My favourite panel was Friday morning's on the use of evidence in public policy. Ian Brodie splashed the cold water of political realities onto the audience's faces and described why the Conservative Party cut GST, despite the protestations of "economists and people who claim to know economists."  Wendy Thomson gave an excellent analysis of how "science let us down" in the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK.  Matthew Mendelsohn, my colleague at the Public Policy School at U of T, discussed the challenges using evidence on high profile, regionally divisive issues.  Case in point is equalization, where Matthew pointed out that, even when we could, we fail to gather evidence on the effectiveness of Canada's equalization program (its $267 billion price tag be damned).  "All politics are local?" anyone?

Joe Clark wrapped up with a reminder of the importance of getting back to basics, reminding us that "evidence" not only includes research but also must include "instinct" - by which he meant an ability to triangulate hard evidence with the experiences and aspirations of people.  "Social knowledge" or "experience" are other words that capture this sentiment.  In Clark's view, this should be done through Parliament, which is ultimately where people connect to the government. He feared that the overload of work and travel, coupled with the dominance of experts makes it increasingly difficult for our MPs to maintain a connection with the people who helped one get elected, squeezing out "instinct" and making Parliament and by extension our government less legitimate.  This reminded me of why Obama fought so hard to keep his Blackberry and see his Chicago friends.

Obviously this provided lots of food for thought for us at Samara.  While Samara isn't focused on public policy directly, our interest is in the culture that surrounds its development.  Culture is a slippery word, and while admittedly we here at Samara need to be a bit more precise about what we mean when we say such sweeping things (!), in this world, it is a mix of our individual actions and beliefs as well as the direction of our institutions, including Parliament.  It's not enough to focus on institutional reform, nor is it enough to act without an eye to our institutions (of which Parliament is just one; media are another, as are universities and libraries, to name a few).  Where are the bridges?

*Global economic crisis.  I feel we're overdue for an acronym here.
P.S. I have notes on the sessions.  If anyone's interested, let me know.  Happy to share.

Shameless friend plug: The importance of making it happen in public life

Congrats to my friend Naheed Nenshi on this wonderful profile in the Calgary Herald.  It is terrific to see a media story on someone like him, who mixes smarts, passion and community activity to make a difference to the quality of life in our cities.  

I have known Naheed since my first days at McKinsey & Co in Toronto.  For awhile, he was obstensibly my manager, but largely due to the bonding that takes place between policy geeks working in management consulting, we soon became friends.

While we were nefariously starting Canada25 after hours, Naheed often stopped by to offer his help.  "No job too big or small," he said.  Quite quickly, he was promoted from midnight photocopy boy (!) and skillfully undertook the thankless, unpaid task of summarizing the contributions of hundreds of young Canadians into a sassy policy document, Building Up, that still resonates today.

I'm proud of my friend and hope his story encourages many of you as it does me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My ignorance revealed (what else is new?)

Last night I attended the Canadian Journalism Foundation's lecture series on Democracy and Journalism, featuring Andrew Leslie, the Chief of Land Staff of the Canadian Forces.  Fascinating evening, and a reminder of a) how little I know about the military and b) how lucky I am, like many Canadians, to have the luxury of being so ignorant.  

I first saw the General speak at the Banff Forum two years ago.  I was impressed then, and was even more so last night.  He was very thoughtful during the Q&A in particular and I observed a solid level of discourse and mutual respect among him and the journalists.  It was an important reminder of the role of public service, something I think about a lot now given Samara, and the discipline that comes with being a public servant.  I learned a lot.
Some of the highlights: General Leslie spoke for about 30 minutes, followed by about an hour of Q&A.  During his talk, he made two major points:
  • The tranformation underway in the army today is "unprecedented." It has changed more in the last four years than in the previous 40, he said, in part because Afghanistan is the largest combat effort since WW2. Some of this has to do with modernizing an old institution (e.g., "becoming a learning organization," recruiting and retaining) and some has to do with the particular difficulties of war in a more modern time (e.g., providing better support for families and for injured soldiers, sorting out baseline funding for the equipment needed for IED-style battle).  Paul Knox asked a great question about the army's ability to transform absent a "labratory" (read: active combat situation), to which the General responded correctly that no one seeks war to experiment, but like other government insitutions, the army can be bureaucratic and it sometimes takes new experiences to push it forward.  This led me to wonder what "new experiences" might be underway that could push other bureaucracies forward?  Ideas?
  • The miliatary "works for you."  He said this about 20 times in a number of different ways (e.g., "you need to know what your army is up to," "we're called by you to serve," "we do your bidding," "you decide where we go, for how long and at what cost").  After awhile, I thought, "okay, I get it!" and felt a bit annoyed, thinking this was another example of the PR-ization of our public discourse.  Then (warning: nerd alert) I started thinking about the breakdown between Parliament and the average citizen - he's right, it is our army, but we really have little say in what it does.  Then, in listening to the Q&A after, I realized I'd missed the point.  General Leslie was asked several times to comment on various government decisions, and of course, didn't, as well as Hillier's decision to speak at the Manning Centre conference... finally, he said, "when you put on the uniform, you are subordinate by law, custom and practice to the laws and policies of the Canadian government, and trust me, you want it this way.... when you take off the uniform, you are entitled to state your opinion.  That's what you fought for while you were in it."  One only needs to think for a moment about military dictatorship to realize what he really meant when he said it was our army.  Doh.
A major tension underlying the questions was the muzzles that many felt the Conservatives were putting on people who should otherwise be free to speak. Scott White from CP was particularly thoughtful on this point.  General Leslie was respectful and listened closely but obviously couldn't comment. 

 Janice Stein closed with a plea not to ignore the tensions in our own democracy; in particular, the inability of our best ambassadors and foreign affairs people to talk without having their comments "cleared."  She encouraged journalists to keep pushing - their sources, their editors - and asked them to be "more like yourselves than you are."  "I look at where we are," she concluded, "and I'm not satisfied with how our democracy is educating our citizens on global issues."  Here here.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Farewell Doug Frith

As some of you may know, I'm involved in starting a new organization, Samara, through which we're trying to spark projects that support a culture of public service in Canada.  My friends from Canada25 will remember the feeling of possibility that comes with starting something new that we hoped would create a better future for our country; I hope Samara will provide that same sense for those involved with it.

One of the projects we're working on is a series of exit interviews with MPs from the past Parliament who are not serving in this one.  The idea is to capture their collective experience and shine some light on the good things we don't know much about, and on the areas where change may be needed.

Thus far, the process has enabled us to meet with some incredible individuals.  Among them was Doug Frith, who in addition to his career as a public official in Sudbury, in the Canadian Parliament and in private industry, chaired the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians.  I met Doug in early 2009 to talk about our exit interview project in hopes that the Association would work with us to make it happen.  Much to my delight, he welcomed the project and has been instrumental in moving it forward.  At the time, he commented to me that Gordon Fairweather, who had passed away on Christmas Eve, was the last living member of the Diefenbaker cabinet and that it was a pity we hadn't captured his voice.*  

Very sadly, I learned this afternoon that Doug passed away yesterday.  Here is an obituary from the Sudbury Star.  No doubt there will be more.  It was a priviledge to know him, if even for a few short months.  We will continue to work on the MP project in his honour.

*As an aside, I learned from Bill Young, Canada's chief librarian, that there were some interviews done of MPs, including Gordon Fairweather, in the 1970s.  I have the list, and one of my colleagues is currently navigating the Archives of Canada in an attempt to gain copies of them.  If anyone knows of these interviews or how to maneuver the Archives, please let me know.