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.

Shameless plug: I attend a lot of events and speakers series in a sometimes futile attempt to get a better understanding of what's going on around me.  In my humble opinion, the CJF's are among the very best.  A neutral, agenda-free platform, great speakers, engaged audience and no charge to the public.  Sign up here to learn more. [full disclosure: I recently joined their programming committee]

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.