Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Can ordinary people govern themselves?

Part of a university education is developing the ability to assess whether commonly held views are valid. The election of an NDP government in Alberta has triggered much hand-wringing about whether these inexperienced soon-to-be Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) can successfully govern the province.

Generally, I’m skeptical of this thinking. My experience is that many factors influence the performance of cabinet ministers and very experienced ministers can make a real hash of things.

Back when I was in government, one day I got word that we were no longer allowed to use the phrase “unionized employees” when briefing the Minister or writing speaking notes for him. Instead, we were to call them (incorrectly) “union employees”. Kinda weird in the Ministry of Labour, hey?

The backstory was that the Minister had gone to a committee meeting and (somehow) spent the meeting talking about “onionized” employees. This went on for so long his own caucus members were laughing aloud at him. Now, you’d think that the Minister, who’d held 5 cabinet posts, might have drawn on his (then) 22 years of experience and thought “I’m responsible for six pieces of legislation about unions and none about the genus allium” and stopped taking about fucking onions….

Clearly, smarts and diligence (i.e., reading your briefing ahead of time and understanding what you are talking about) can mediate a Minister’s performance. Good comportment also helps, as I flash back to a public meeting where this same minister took his shoes off and put his stocking feet on the table to get an uproarious laugh from other (very experienced) MLAs.

Given the (many) contra examples to the “inexperienced = incompetent” hypotheses, what gives with this then? Is it just sour grapes from Tory supporters? Or is it perhaps part of some broader construct that some folks have internalized that ordinary people aren’t capable of governing themselves?

Certainly that view is endemic in management theory, where ever-greater efforts are made to quantify and control workers’ performance. For example, Athabasca University has been implementing a call centre, which tracks and monitors (and interferes with) the interactions of students and academics.

Has performance improved? One internal study I saw last month reported student satisfaction had fallen precipitously. And, anecdotally, the adjustment students and academics are making is to basically avoiding the call centre system by communicating outside of it. Perhaps this suggests that plain ordinary people can be trusted make decisions about their lives and govern themselves sensible and ought to be left to do it? 

Indeed, unions are a good example of how ordinary people can manage their own affairs. Every year, regular folk get voted to be their peers' representatives in their dealings with the employer. While not every union official does a perfect job, most manage to do competent work. And their peers then pass judgment upon their work the next year--by voting them in or out.

-- Bob Barnetson

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