Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I recently found a response to a Walrus magazine article I wrote a few years back.

This article motivated me to begin blogging, so I thought I would report my response here.


In the September 2006 issue of Walrus magazine, Allan Gregg, wrote an article entitled 'How To Save Democracy'. As a renowned pollster (founder of Decima research, co-founder of The Strategic Counsel), I would expect Mr. Gregg to have a rich understanding of the Canadian mindset, and he doesn't disappoint there.

But unfortunately, the salvation he proposes negates the essence of the people he wishes it on.

Diagnosis and Cure

Allan Gregg begins with an assessment of the current political situation in Canada. Identifying and tagging our most obvious problems should be an easy task for a pollster, and he hits the biggest targets spot-on. “The core problem is that our cynicism cultivates further soil for more cynicism.” he writes. He describes the pitfalls in blaming politicians for cynicism, that doing so “distances the electorate even further from the system that was designed to protect and advance the citizen's needs."

The author points out public relations campaigns have had no real positive effect. He is also skeptical that electoral reforms such as proportional representation will achieve anything. But after showing a distaste for imposed, centrally-programmed solutions, Mr. Gregg goes on to propose solutions that run along the same lines.

His concept seems sound: politicians and the people are too far apart and the gap needs to be bridged. Perhaps if the people can see what our government, and our local MPs do for us, it will make government and civic participation more meaningful to us.

How can we make it happen ? Mr. Gregg suggests bringing politicians into closer contact with the voters, granting more access to the system, and making local representatives more influential. The suggested means of achieving these goals include compulsory voting, and “public sponsorship of festivals, reading series, debates and town-hall meetings” to encourage community.

But this is pure central programming and it would not receive any better response than the PR exercises he himself discounts. Let’s look at a recent example in Canadian politics to see why.

An Anti-Antidote

For a good anti-antidote to Mr. Gregg’s antidote, let’s consider the history of the Reform Party of Canada. Started by real communities of disaffected voters who worked within the system, believing it would make a difference in people’s lives, it was a model of a grassroots political movement. These people didn’t need to be taught the value of political action, or have the idea of community preached to them: they already had it.

So what happened to their movement ?

Fast forward twenty years or so and that party has become the Conservative Party of Canada. While still shiny and new, it is now very much a part of the Canadian political machine. Eastern Canadian voters certainly come to the new party as an alternative to the Liberals, but it is another political party now. It is no longer a movement for political reform.

And the chasm between the people and their leaders still exists after the arrival of the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party. In fact, it’s worse. This history illustrates the path that even a successful implementation of Mr. Gregg’s ideas would take.

The system as it is inevitably moves us to a division of the government and the governed, whether that government is big or small. In the end, the cynicism does not abate.

A Solution for Another Time

So why does Mr. Gregg fail to save democracy in the end ? It is because his solution attempts to solve the cynicism, which is a symptom of the problem, rather than working on the problem itself: an outdated political system that fits its people like a bad suit.

He gives himself away this fact himself with the sentence “we must make … changes aimed at elites as well as cultural changes aimed at the masses.” If Mr. Gregg truly thinks of the people of Canada as the masses, then can he really expect the ‘masses’ to behave as civically responsible individuals ?

This is his elemental error. Even as he realizes that we’re dealing with the masses, Allan Gregg reverts to a past ideal – a political system designed for a place, time and people that no longer exist.

The American founding fathers designed a system of government for a community, to be run by leaders (not by the masses) for the public good. The modern great-grandchild of that system gives every citizen can vote, where campaigns are run by remote control through pervasive electronic media. The mass public includes a majority who feel no obligation to civic duty beyond scanning the day’s headlines. They don’t even vote.

One can hope for change, but we shouldn’t waste our energies hoping for the impossible. No festival or reading program will cause ‘The Greatest Generation’ to reappear. That generation of civic minded, newspaper-reading individuals are gone, along with their dignified and revered political leaders. Who we are, how we do things, and how we see events have changed.

Mr. Gregg, in recognizing that we-the-people, are now we-the-masses should have followed through with that idea to a more appropriate solution. Although the mass public can’t expected to participate in the political process in the same way as the ‘public’ of the past, they can be useful in working towards positive change.

A more effective approach might be to leverage the distance between politicians and the mass public, rather than to try to bridge it. The mass public is disgusted with politicians that vie for their support but don’t solve our problems. One thing the Canadian mass public definitely wants in its government is good management.

If we could somehow crystallize roughly what the masses are looking for, and quantify a reasonably objective set of measures that help to define that ideal, we – the people – could set the political agenda. One could argue that the Reform push for deficit reduction in the 1990s was an example of the people demanding concrete and clear results. The Liberal government responded to pressure, making Reform and its grassroots supporters a significant agent of change in Canada.

Are there other ways in which we, the people, can get what we want from our politicians ?

Here’s a suggestion for a first step along those lines.

If there was a clear set of objective measures against which government performance can be measured that was generally agreed upon, there would be no place that a government or opposition could hide. The key would be for these metrics to be cross-partisan, clear and publicly accessible, like a score card.

For example, we have heard about hospital waiting lists to be growing, and hears every politician vow to lower them ? So how have they done against that goal ? Do you know ? Would you know where to look to find out ? Currently, when trying to form an opinion on such things, you have a choice between listening to superficial and contradictory arguments made on all sides (sometimes emotive, sometimes exhaustingly complex) or taking it upon yourself to do the research.

Is this a fit choice for the mass public ? Are either of these sources of information helpful to the masses ?

Without a clear source of information within reach, the public is shouted at by vested interests, drowning each other out with bullhorns full of contradictory facts and figures and deliberate misinformation. The majority gets confused, and checks out of the process.

Imagine how much more helpful it would be to see a box score such as the following in every daily newspaper:

This is only a rough example, and I don’t know much about designing charts, but wouldn’t adding such a table to our daily newspapers would put long-term thinking about health care squarely in the public mind ?

If I wanted to know the weather, movie times, or the ball scores, I would only have to pick up any local paper. Why aren’t long term medical statistics worthy of similar coverage ?

Faced with hard numbers above, fixed in the public mind, no politician would be able to hide behind rhetoric or exaggeration. The key indicators in the document, as discussed, would have to include measures agreed upon by a cross-partisan group: a clear, simple and report card.

The mass public needs to come up with better devices for making decisions. The key is for us to move forward is to recognize that we are a mass public, and to accept that political topography as a starting point. Simplifying the various debates, or giving all the information, or only the most sensational is no help at all.

We need start thinking about what the masses can do for us, rather than what we can do for the masses.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Letter to Metro Morning

Re: The eHealth Scandal in Ontario

The project manager you interviewed on your show this morning said the words that have begged to be spoken on the matter of the recent eHealth scandal. To paraphrase - why did it take some minor over-billing by a consultant to alert the media to the waste of a billion dollars, and the failure of the government to deliver on eHealth ?

The fact is that media likes to go for the juicy story, and I realize that an overlong IT project doesn't qualify for that designation. However, CBC has always been good at leading its listeners to stories as well. I hope you continue to stay with this one.

The real story - the slow failure of the eHealth project - isn't the type of story that provokes immediate outrage, but still it has wasted huge amounts of money at a glacial pace. (How many Toronto pools could be kept open with $1B, how much medical equipment could be bought?) As such, it's vital to all of us that the media keep this story in the headlines by checking in periodically to make sure that this project is completed as promised.

If we're not planning to adopt the American model of for-profit healthcare (and I pray that we're not) then it's up to all of us to apply extra attention to matters of public healthcare, because no "invisible hand" will do it in our stead.

Michael Hardner

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Democracy 3.0 Please

This past Saturday June 27th the National Post glossed about the double-edged sword of 'Democracy 2.0' which apparently now means following politicians on twitters and making them your facebook buddy

So, now it seems that Democracy 2.0 has come to mean the automated tabloidization of public figures. This is as disheartening an event as the realization in the 1920s that the new medium of radio would best be suited to selling soap.

The web has the power to provide unlimited amounts of information instantaneously. It's capacity to provide useful data that can help guide our democracy is practically limitless. But this brain-busting volume of information will have to wait, as we apparently are more concerned with the minutiae of celebrity living.

This is especially ridiculous in Canada, where in all likelihood, our politicians are less interesting and glamorous than our personal friends.

Hopefully, an intelligent subculture will soon emerge and demand information with how our politicians are actually performing in their jobs. And today, more than ever, that means "how are they doing at providing the public with government services ?". Canadians still don't pay enough attention to the poor quality of services, and bad management practices by the government. The Ontario government has still not delivered on a promise to manage healthcare waiting lists made in 2003, but the mismanagement only made it to the headlines recently when a $2,700 a day consultant billed the province $1.65 for tea.

While the plebs of Democracy 2.0 delight themselves with Blackberry bus schedule updates, the rest of us will be waiting for the information that government really doesn't want to give up: statistics on their own performance.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Glances Backward... Steps Forward

It's been almost one year now since the publication of the excellent "It's More Than Talk" report from Don Lenihan and Canada's Public Policy forum. That report described some provactive experiments in democracy with new media and explored new ways in which Canada could use technology to strengthen the ties between government and the people. So, in the wake of that report, how much has government changed in the last year ? Not very much at all. Not surprisingly, it continues to use a top-down method of governing - with real consultation limited to polling the public`s impresions of mass media press releases.

But the net continues.

It continues to burrow into the common culture. Inernet use, and online advertising expenditures increase as the economic climate seems now to be thinning the herd of the weaker old media offerings. In Toronto, a persistent activist new media movement is centered around improving transit service and making the TTC more responsive. And yet the effect of new media on our larger democracy seems non-existent.

The Public Policy forum has just realeased a new report "News & The Netizen", a disappointingly tepid examination of the current media climate. It ambles through descriptions of the participatory democracy offered by the internet with vague assertions that new media is changing politics - even suggesting that online political donations (which have been around for several elections now) and Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign are somehow significant events. The report circles around the issues, and the authors seem too unfamiliar with the potential of new media for change. In the end it offers the conclusion that "ongoing research and dialogue are warranted".

This is analogous to a frog being carried downstream on a lily pad, calling for ongoing research of the river. What we need now is not passive (and powerless) analysis of how the river is flowing, but ideas on how government should jump in - or at least some better examples. Then again, when interesting and thought provoking reports like "It's More Than Talk" haven't had an effect, then maybe watching the river is the only option.

One starts to wonder when and how the new media will finally take its proper place in our media mix. Radio and television arrived suddenly, so perhaps in the coming years the Net will do so as well. If such is the case, then we Netizens need to just watch, wait, and blog... documenting warning against the attendant problems of sudden change, while counting the small victories.

One such victory happened today, in Robert Fulford`s National Post column. In a rare blessing from an old media maven, Fulford declares that the "Net is way better" for journalism than pre-net days. He sees the value in increased communication between individuals. Hopefully, soon we'll all start to understand that online digital relationships are real relationships that can unite people across distances, and social standing. Netizens can help the nation see that the potential to plug these relationships into our governance will be put to good use.

So, let's keep riding the lily pad down the river, and continue our research and dialogue.

As such, I offer you Hardner`s 4 Imporations for Netizens:

1) Stay Online - keep blogging, keep posting on message boards, keep emailing the government, filling out `Contact Us` forms and letting them know that you exist in Cyberspace.

2) Practice Information Hygene. When posting and discussing, be sure to check your facts, and only use sources with an established record of accuracy and objectivity.

3) Be Proactive - Review the latest information from the source - unbiased studies, government statistics, universities, or independent surveys. Don`t wait for articles to appear on online newspaper or commentary sites first.

4) Look for chances to participate in wider dialogue, and jump in. If there is a chance to take the dialogue into the non-virtual world, then do it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Democracy 2.0 Not Services 2.0

eye magazine article

I was very glad to read Chris Bilton's informative, and well written article on Democracy 2.0.

But it occurred to me that "Democracy 2.0" has failed to live up to it's presumptuous title. The movement seems to be too focused on the delivery of government services, and not enough on dialogue and setting the agenda.

While we all would love to see government be more responsive, consumer-friendly etc. etc., we should remember that the movement [not] known as "Democracy 1.0" came from a group of disgruntled forefathers who wanted to provide a way for the people to govern themselves, not consume services.

Democracy 2.0 should be about finding ways to give the powers that be their marching orders. Instead of government telling us which hospitals in our area have the shortest waiting times, we should be using the web to measure our governments against their own promises of reducing these waiting times.

I have been posting and blogging about new media and government for almost 10 years now, and have come to accept that hardly anyone, including pundits, can see the importance of what is coming.

Our media institutions are showing their age, and web-based media is poised to step in and redefine how we govern ourselves. But for us to focus on better delivery of services and information is another example of the rear-view mirror phenomenon described by McLuhan.

Do yourself a favour and read "It's more than talk", headed up by Don Lenihan - Chair in Public Engagement at the Public Policy Forum. His paper offers some very exciting ideas of where new technology might take us.

Public Policy Forum

Michael Hardner

(Next - Democracy 3.0)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Media on Afghanistan

The Globe & Mail profiled General Mohammed Daud Daud in this weekend's edition.

As I read the article, or the "story", I started to feel that we're falling into our old ways in dealing with Afghanistan. The US/Canada/NATO/Western approach of allowing damaged states to continue is pragmatic, and serves our interests in the short term but ultimately has failed in the past. Puppet governments, sympathetic strongmen, and deals with the devil may put a lid on a hot pot but the result is often a bigger mess to clean up later.

And reading the article, I saw that the journalistic device known as the "story" tends to encourage these arrangements.

Stories work best at times of crisis, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or the 9/11 attacks. A "story" is not factual, it's a relevant narrative. As such, a story doesn't get the interest of the public until a situation reaches the breaking point. Unfortunately, we don't have any type of media yet that supports allowing the type of monitoring required - that gives a persistent and constant report of progress. We need a media package that allows the public to watch such situations, that are constantly move forward at a slow boil, over long periods of time.

Now, military affairs do necessitate a certain amount of secrecy, and I don't think that governments are obliged to reveal their their secrets. But they do need to communicate overall goals and to be honest with their people as to how they're achieving them.

And ultimately, if we are intervening in situations around the globe it is our responsibility to stay current on what is happening there, and to hold our governments to best practices moving forward.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Smirky YouTube Video Deserves Smirky Response


Re: The video "10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer"

Hi there.

I just wanted to post a note to say that I think this is a moronic and offensive video.

It's not offensive to my belief in God because I'm agnostic but offensive to my intelligence. It's very difficult for me, as an intelligent and thoughtful person to sit through a diatribe like yours without being able to speak back to the person who made it.

The first thing that strikes me is that you use the term "Christians" throughout your piece the way racists used to use "Orientals" or "Blacks" to describe a diverse group with one label. There are, of course, Christians who don't believe God participates in our daily lives, Christians who believe in evolution, and a whole range of other beliefs, but you put them all in the same box.

At the end, you offer the idea that 'god is imaginary' as some kind of cure to Christianity. So, are you saying that if God is imaginary then all Christianity is crap, and the teachings of Jesus therefore have no value ? And if 'god is imaginary' aren't other religions in trouble too ? The God/Jesus construction that you have put together here had a few screws left over when you were done.

For that matter, while your idea that "god is imaginary" may explain your silly canned questions, it doesn't explain a lot of other questions such as "where did the universe come from ?" and "what happens after you die ?". Those questions made humans consider whether there were gods and spirits in the first place. The idea that there's some huge force behind creation may or may not be rational, but it certainly is a natural idea to consider that as a possibility.

The question of what exists outside our universe is impossible to answer. And the idea that there's nothing at all seems unnatural to many people. It may, in fact, frighten them. If it helps them to think that a higher power exists, then isn't it good for them ? ( Why do people feel the need to evangelize their non-beliefs as much as others evangelize their beliefs ? )

Further to these natural questions and answers that cultures develop, it's also intuitive to believe that there was a supernatural personality behind creation, as many cultures seem to have developed the same myth independently. These cultures still have adherents who hold these belifs as part of their identity, and pass them on to their children. Are you going to make a video making fun of them ?

So here are some answers, to your ten questions - only 4 are needed.

Answers 1, 2, 6, 8

You seem to think that great minds through the ages didn't consider deep questions about faith such as "Why does God allow suffering ?". The answer is that God doesn't involve himself in the day-to-day workings of the universe. God gives humans the power of free choice, to make what they will from their lives.

Answers 3, 4, 5,

Duh. The bible is wrong. The bible was like the internet of the ancient world. So, does every post on the web make sense ? No.

Once again, I submit to you: Duh.

Answer 7

You ask "Why didn't Jesus leave evidence of his miracles ?" Uh ... What ? Evidence ? Are you expecing bones and crumbs from the 40 loaves/fishes ? What ? Huh ? Why would he ?

The author doesn't spend much time on this question, and only says "It's very strange isn't it ?". I guess he wanted ten questions not nine.

Answer 9

The 'Body of Christ'. What is it ? That's symbolic to most people, right ? Those who believe it's real, just believe magic is real. That's all.

Answer 10

Christians get divorced at the same rate as others. Do they, though ? If you say so, although you don't tell where you got that information. Since you are a "SMART PERSON" who "KNOWS HOW TO THINK CRITICALLY" I guess we should just believe everything you say just like some Christians believe the bible. But if you don't provide any more evidence than the bible does why are you any better ?

I wouldn't be surprised, though, Christians aren't any better at marriage than non Christians.

Why don't you make a video making fun of people who have been divorced next ?

Anyway, good for you for putting your beliefs into a video. It's just too bad that it's so crappy, smirking, and poorly thought through. Even if I believed in heaven and hell, which I don't, I would think this video would land you in hell. It's too lame.