Sunday, June 15, 2008

Public Dialogue in Decline:Problems and Solutions

Readers of my online posts and blog entries know that the dominant theme of my essays has long been the deterioration of our collective dialogue in society.

My feeling is that the ascendance of television as the dominant medium of discussion over the past forty years, and the deterioration of the printed press have created a situation where complex discussions can no longer happen properly in the public sphere. The problem has, to my mind, manifested itself in the alienation and disengagement that people feel with regards to government, their disenchantment with political figures and the declining participation rate in elections.

Although I haven't said so often, my hope has been that our emerging new media could somehow be leveraged to take a role in mediating discussion.

Recently, I discovered a group called the Public Policy Forum. The group was formed during the Mulroney government in the 1980s. Their purpose, according to their website: "The Public Policy Forum's mission is to strive for excellence in government - to serve as a neutral, independent forum for open dialogue on public policy, and to encourage reform in public sector management. Four key factors have distinguished the PPF as a unique organization on the Canadian landscape."

Public Policy Forum Website

Their website seems to contain a number of papers that submit remedies for problems that governments face today. The first paper I read "It's More Than Talk" is a fascinating plunge into the exciting realm of providing solutions using new media. This report was headed up by Don Lenihan - "provincal advisor on public engagement" and needs to be read cover to cover to appreciate the potential here.

I will be exploring this paper and the Public Policy Forum in greater depth in the coming weeks.

Read "It's More Than Talk" Here

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hail The Master of Stupidity !

Imagine you're on the board of directors of a major corporation. There is an important decision before you that will require your vote. Advocates of various points of view with regards to this decision come into your board room and give video presentations to you and your fellow board members. Each presentation provides a different set of facts, requiring you to weigh the costs and benefits of each option.

Finally, the last presenter comes into the room and plays a video of a man speaking at a podium, but there is no sound. You raise your hand and point out to the presenter that you can't hear what is being said. "That's ok", he says, "You should be able to make your mind up based on the images alone."

Does this sound crazy ? Well, Rob Mitchell, former media advisor to Ontario Premier Mike Harris, comments in the Toronto Star today about the appointment of Guy Giorno to head up the office of the Prime Minster of Canada, effectively saying that such a practice is actually praiseworthy. In the column, Giorno is lauded for inventing something called the "hell-of-a-guy" event, wherein a television viewer could be expected to make his or her mind up about a piece of legislation simply by watching a politician on television with the sound turned off.

If you're puzzled by this thinking, perhaps you haven't noticed that ideas long ago took a back seat in political theatre. They're too unweidly, and difficult to get across in a few seconds of television news coverage, after all. And you can't be expected to read a long newspaper article to get the information, can you ?

So, to make your political choices you should simply take two or three seconds to survey a politician's posture, their clothing and the backdrop behind them and you will have all you need. That's how you choose soup isn't it - by the colour of the soup can ? As you can see, the spoonfeeding of the western public continues, to the detriment of all.

Just as the market for healthy snacks appears as a fraction of the overall snack market, the market for wholesome and context rich information appears to be miniscule and shrinking. CBS news, once proud to have the likes of Walter Cronkite deliver the information that made America think, is reportedly in talks to outsource news operations in CNN. Objective information is as unsexy as multivitamins.

These trends in political discourse and information management are disturbing because our democratic institutions depend on continued healthy dialogue in order to work properly. If the public isn't paying attention to facts, then facts won't drive the debate. Instead, we find the debate orbits around personalities, and dramatic pageant of the election campaign.

Even more disturbing than the decline of good fact-based discussion is the fact that the chattering classes do not seem to be concerned enough with things to comment on these trends, except for the usual, cynical throwing up of hands in futility. Or worse, we have the Rob Mitchells of the world celebrating the fact that a politician can be elected based, apparently, on a good shave and haircut.

The big questions in society are not being answered, and they will not be answered until the media either gives the general public the information to consider them, or gets out of the way.

I for one would like to hear candidates give their arguments for and against going to war, for and against a carbon tax, for and against globalization. I can get them some of these things from the web, but I shouldn't have to. It should be given through mainstream media to all of us voters. If 80% of my fellow citizens aren't interested in facts, then let them sit on the sidelines or change the chanel. I ask myself if they will ever vote in anything beyond a phone poll anyway.

If Patrick Henry were alive today, he might say "Give me information or give me death !"

Toronto Star article:

Sunday, May 11, 2008 And The Information Gap

The campaign for President of the United States that's going on in America now is fascinating in several ways, but for me it's the most fascinating aspect is the way that the coverage continues the trend of presidential campaigns I've seen over my lifetime. That is, the focus of coverage continues to trend towards the story of the election contest itself, on the personalities involved, and superficial issues and away from the issues at hand.

You probably won't be surprised in my pointing this out, but the fact that this is a well known phenomenon doesn't make it less worthy of examination. In fact, the acceptance of this deterioration of idea-based political dialogue is itself a problem. I have always been interested in the writings of Neil Postman ("Amusing Ourselves to Death"). Postman regarded television campaign ads as a something of a dangerous placebo for actual political dialogue:

"Just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political substance for the same reason." Neil Postman

Over the past few years, I have held out some hope that the world wide web could somehow guide us back to a 'Golden Age of Reason' somehow, and away from the expensive, expansive political sideshow that we're seeing today. With this hope in mind, I thought I would have a look at how one campaign is presenting information to voters over the web and see what I find. I picked candidate Hillary Clinton (at random), and decided to dive in and see whether is presenting their candidate's ideas in a way so that I could make an informed choice, if I were a reasonably informed and involved American voter.

It's hard to get any hard information from the political world these days, even if one stays away from those television campaign ads. Cable television news seems to have discovered out that even smart people are more interested in strategy than in evaluating policies.

As such, if one candidate or another releases a new policy position, I hear the senior correspondents on CNN framing it in the context of the election race. Often times, the "smart" commentary, the political "insider" shows, are about the strategy decisions behind policy statements. For example, you might hear that "Mrs. Clinton is going after the middle class with this statement...". The sharpest political discussions I see on these channels tend to be about strategy for the contest itself, and the inherent drama rather than on the candidates' ideas.

That sort of coverage is easy to understand. The news business is about getting people to watch, read or hear what's being said, and it's at once more interesting, and easier to grasp when we discuss personalities and strategies than the deeper issues underneath policy discussions.

I wouldn't say that ideas aren't covered at all, that they're ignored, or that they're treated as not important, but I would say that it's difficult to find a dry discussion of policy these days. I find that the strategy around candidates' platforms gets more discussion than the ideas themselves, and so the validity of the ideas are subordinate to how they play with the electorate.

In a way, then, the political process seems to have become married to strategy, or more accurately strategic marketing, with the candidate as a packaged product. Again, to say that a candidate has ever been completely separated from their ideas would be ridiculous, and to quantify the degree to which ideas themselves are discussed is difficult. But it seems pretty clear to me we're not discussing ideas these days as much as we're talking about ideas and personalities in the context of the race.

The problem with that sort of political dialogue is that a healthy Democracy depends upon people choosing the "best" candidate, not the candidate that "speaks to them" or the candidate that they "identify with", or the candidate that returns the best focus group results. It seems to me that the last time America picked "the guy they'd rather have a beer with" was in 2000 and that didn't turn out so well.

These are my impressions, that there is less substantive discussion of policy than there has been in the past and I can't prove that. But if there are studies on this topic, please pass them on. As i said, my hope is that the information superhighway can give me me enough information on a candidate to make a decision.

So... let's see how is presenting their candidate's ideas.:

The splash page and home page are no surprise: images of Mrs. Clinton draped in adoration and success, as they are with all candidates. There are calls for volunteers and support as with the other candidates.

Issues are on the toolbar after 'Hillary'. This makes sense, and candidates McCain and Obama have more or less the same priority on issues, after calls to action, and meeting the candidate. The #1 issue under issues is something called "Strengthening the Middle Class".

Hey ! That speaks to me... click.

Here we see first off:

Nine Discussion Points: These are all fairly general 'feel good points' summarized in a single sentence, linked to a full article. :

Five Specific / General Promises: I say specific / general because they're specific promises to do something specific about a general area.

"#4 is "Restore the Basic Bargain"
Restore the basic bargain. Hillary will restore the basic bargain that if Americans work hard and take responsibility, government will do its part to make sure they have the tools to get ahead."

Aha. We're in the right place now. These are ideas I need to evaluate to determine if Mrs. Clinton is the candidates for me. Let's see...

I click down on the first discussion point:

"Lowering taxes for middle class families."


There is a paragraph describing her policy announcement from October 2007, made in Iowa, repetition of the 9 discussion points from the previous page...

I'm starting to get hungry for some facts and arguments now...

Ah... here we go. As we drill down, we get more numbers, and apparently more substance:

A section called 'The Challenges' lists factors which have impacted middle class families.

And... JACKPOT ! ... the facts behind "Restore the basic bargain"...


Implement the Save Our Homes Program.

"The Save Our Homes program would temporarily use Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the state housing finance agencies to help reduce foreclosures. The program would be in effect for 2 years. First, Hillary will temporarily increase Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s portfolio caps by 5% to give the companies approximately $70 billion in incremental mortgage purchasing capacity. With the caps lifted, the two companies will be directed to work with state housing agencies and private lenders to help at-risk homeowners replace their unworkable mortgages (mostly adjustable rate mortgages) with stable, fixed-rate loans.

For example, the companies would help lenders and state agencies set responsible underwriting standards for the new loans; and the companies would also purchase some of these loans for their portfolios.

Second, Hillary will temporarily modify the Mortgage Revenue Bond (MRB) program to help families refinance unworkable mortgages. Under the MRB, state housing finance agencies use the proceeds of tax-exempt bond issuances to provide low-cost mortgages to low- and moderate-income families. Hillary will modify the MRB program in two ways to address the foreclosure crisis: First, state agencies will be permitted to use MRBs to refinance mortgages (under current law, MRB
funds can only be used for original mortgages). And second, Hillary will increase the federal cap on the MRB program by roughly 25% to provide an additional $2.5 billion in refinancing capacity. Empowering the state housing agencies to refinance unworkable mortgages would enable them to help low- and moderate income people replace resetting ARMs with stable, fixed-rate loans."

If you understand that, congratulations. You must be a policy advisor for the Clinton campaign. Is the average American supposed to understand it ? Even if they did - there still isn't enough here for me to make a decision. There are no criteria for success, no projections of overall costs or results.

So how are people supposed to make informed decisions on issues this complex ? The answer is that they can't. The specifics of how government operates became too complex for anybody to discuss a long time ago. We're just supposed to trust people to make these decisions for us.

But at a certain point, there's not enough information available to make a decision in any way as to whether an idea is a good idea or not. There is either too much or too little information and we can't make a decision based on anything but how we feel about the candidate. So it seems that part of the problem is that the issues themselves are too complex.

Well, I set out to find out what information I could use to help guide my decision on voting for president, but I found either too little information to make a decision, or too much information to wade through.

This is what I call the information gap - too little information or too much.

It's not a new problem, but it's arguably the most important problem, since our democratic process and the attendant dialogue is what we use to solve all of the other problems we face.

How am I to make a decision on a candidate if it's impossible for me to get enough objective information on their ideas ? How am I to make a decision if I have to rely on proxies to interpret political platforms for me ?

I am writing on this topic to start a dialogue towards solutions. As our current media infrastructure faces stark challenges, it is up to us, the people, to demand good information from which we can make our decisions. If we are to have a democracy, we need good information in order to make good decisions.

Please forward me your ideas.