The Guardian leads to day with an important editorial - It asks whether all the consultation about many issues is valid. Will the process end up with a report gathering dust? Will they deepen the divides on key issues - will they exhaust everyone to no purpose?
It's encouraging when governments consult voters on the major issues of the day, presumably to take the pulse on the direction they should take when it comes to forming policy.
But can there be too much of a good thing?
As we speak, government is in the process of getting public input on several subjects. There are commissions, panels and committees looking into nitrates in the water system, child-care facilities legislation, disability services, Sunday shopping, heritage policy and regulations governing cosmetic pesticides, just to name a few.
While it's laudable that Islanders have been given the opportunity to express their concerns, the question is, what will come of all this public consultation? At the end of the day, will government be able to produce coherent action on these fronts? Or are these reports destined to end up on government shelves somewhere?
What does not work and what does work? This is what I would like to talk abut in a few posts.
Let's start in this post with what does not work and then in Part II I will offer some suggestions about what does work.
But first - what do we mean by "work". What is then outcome of a good consultation? I think that the root cause for failure is that most fail to even start with an outcome in mind.
Bad process would look like this:
- Shall we ban pesticides or keep them? Why is this a bad process? Because what it does is simply set up two sides who can never agree. The real outcome that is inevitable politically for this type of process is to do nothing. This by the way may be the desired outcome - if so then we have all been taken for a ride
- What can we do to ensure that First Nations People do better? This is a bad process because you will end up with a 1,000 item list and with all advocates competing between each other - the First Nations Community will splinter further and the report can never be acted on because there will never be agreement on what are the 2-3 best options. The outcome also here will be no action. Again this may be the desired outcome. If so, again, the public has been hoodwinked.
- Let's ensure quality in daycare by limiting spaces. This is a bad process because when neither assumption about what is the problem or the solution may be valid it assumes both. The desired outcome here is that the changes can be made and the appearance of consultation has been given. Again the public has been abused.
Process with the wrong context or the wrong question can go no where. Let's look at our beef and hog farmers as a case study.
The current context is that prices are too low. The assumption is that with luck and a prayer they may go up in the future. Another is that if only we could find another market, we might be ok.
But that is not the right context and not the right question.
The real question to ask is "Why are prices low?' If we ask that question we start to see the real problem.
The real problem is that our current distribution system is over concentrated in favour of the 2 buyers who buy from suppliers all over the world.
If you don't look for the system - you cannot find even the starting point for complex problems.
Once you see the "system" you can start to see a direction to help the industry. The direction is find ways of giving the seller more power.
So a better process for all those involved in our hog and beef industry is to look at what they are really up against rather than merely providing a process to reinforce their natural fears and helplessness.
So before I end this post and later go onto talking about what I have learned works, I would like those in politics who may read this to ask themselves - what is your objective in all these consultations? Do you really want to find a better way?
If you want to find a better way - then here is an example of a better way to find real answers and to unite people around them.
I have found that it is best to begin with a small group whose job it is to find a starting place - who will set in motion the initial conditions or the small snowball that will accumulate insight over time and become a snowman.
You will find in the Follow On what this Starting Point looked like for public radio - as you see this example think - Disabilities, Children, Agriculture - what would your starting point look like?
Define the who and what of your systm and how it works - what is the business model or say in social tertms what is the outcome and what is the nature of the process that is meant to deliver on the outcome - what are daycares meant to do? What is the outcome that we all need for agriculture on PEI?
Then see what the key trends are - what is the actual reality - in agriculture the ROI is going down, debt is accumulating as margins get squeezed all the time. There are fewer kids than ever before, their & social educational outcomes are in decline.
Then do your best to find the crux of the problem/opportunity - in agriculture it is the power imbalance in distribution - for kids the opportunity is before they get to school
Then determine how best to engage the community so that their overall wisdom can produce more clarity, trust and energy.
What is Public Radio in the US?
Public Radio in America is not a state run monolith like the BBC, CBC or ABC. It is a genuine community structure. More than 300 organizations operate local radio stations. Most of these organizations are owned by Universities or School Boards. The rest are owned by local community boards. Most of these stations have less than 20 employees. Some however are larger and have over 100. Many are one offs and operate as stand alones. Some like Minnesota Public Radio are local regional networks. Many operate a public TV station as well.
Holding all of this together is a national satellite distribution system that is owned by all the stations and is operated on their behalf by a subsidiary of NPR. Anchoring the local programming are a number of organizations that specialize in creating national programs. Some of you know Prairie Home Companion offered by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) Largest of these is NPR with over 800 employees. NPR is based in Washington. NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered are two news magazines that bookend the day on many stations. NPR was the child of the stations but is now much larger than any station. NPR does not broadcast directly. While huge in Public Radio terms, NPR is tiny when compared to the Commercial Media that it competes with.
Until recently, the economics of public radio were simple, if awkward. Your local station would periodically have "Pledge Week". The same experience that most of know who watch PBS in Canada. The week is given over to begging for our dollars to support the programming that we like. About 10% of the audience nationally respond and give enough money to enable the stations to pay for their programming and cover their operating costs. Listeners pledge to their local stations who put on national programming that they pay for with the pledge money.
The audience for public radio has grown substantially in the last 10 years from about 15 to 30 million. It is comprised of well educated people on the whole but its main characteristic is that its audience are curious. They have become fed up with the pablum, inanity and spin of commercial radio. Public Radio has become the most trusted source of news in the US and has been attracting some of the best journalists to its ranks such as Ted Koppel - who themselves are fed up with spin and trivia.
In the last year however, listener growth has halted. Some say that public radio has become too middle aged and too bland. With more choice, maybe people are going elsewhere? Many stations and NPR are trying new avenues such as Podcasting and Vcasting. Some are trying Blogging. Some like MPR have enlisted 17,000 volunteer Public Insight Journalists to help augment their newsroom.
So what is the problem?
Imagine you are a small station. What would happen if your listeners went direct to NPR or to a Podcast and bypassed you? Did NPR have a secret plan? Could you trust anything they said?
What would happen if you were NPR? Would you want to try being a direct broadcaster? Could you afford not to experiment? What would happen to trust in the system if NPR experimented? Should NPR make its future with the stations or not - how would you know was the right call anyway? If you moved too slow, would you lose it all. If you moved too fast would you lose support? There were relationship minefields everywhere.
What does the audience really want? Is this all about technology? Is there in fact a web 2.0 of media that we are overlooking?
Can we expect to rely on government for a lot of support? How can we in the midst of all this turbulence rely on the support of our members? Is just good programing enough? What is good programming today anyway? How does the Long tail affect us? What would an endless dial and clock mean?
What were we anyway? We call ourselves a "system" but are we really a system or are we merely a collection of individuals that do the same thing? We talk about our members but are they really members or givers of money?
Our biggest problem was that even if one clever executive or consultant could answer these questions correctly - who would ever believe her?
How could we find answers to these questions that all could trust? Did we even have the right questions? What about you? Does what you do look as if it is about to be disrupted? How would you know what to do in such a way that you could trust the result?