‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947
I’ve been thinking a great deal about governance lately, and what a very strange thing transition of power is. I do believe that most of those who choose to run for office have a sincere desire to improve their communities. They see problems they feel are not being adequately addressed, so they run for office with the hope of influencing the decisions that get made. I also admire them for being willing to take on a thankless task in an increasingly hostile and unstable world.
That doesn’t mean, however, that those who get elected are equipped or have the experience and/or skills to be effective once they are in office (and frankly no one could ever be prepared enough to face what hits you the moment you walk through the elected official door). The limited number of things they might have imagined they would be doing slam pretty quickly against the harsh realities of the scale of the job and the complexity of the problems they had once seen as fairly straight forward, and with the sudden appearance of stakeholders, issues, and processes they had no idea existed prior to assuming power. They can’t just ‘do things’ – there are rules and constraints under which they must learn to operate. They sometimes learn those constraints in full view of the public and it is painful to watch.
They enter into on-the-job learning as the sudden CEO’s of billion dollar industries – in positions that no one in their right mind would hire them for in the private sector given their levels of education and/or prior leadership experience. However, that is the nature of democracy. Citizens have to trust that the newly elected will learn quickly whatever it is they need to learn in order to get a few constructive things done while in office, and citizens have to put up with the many landmines the newly elected unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) plant and step on in the early days of assuming office that tip systems into chaos and which then have to be hauled back into some kind of order (to use a Cynefin reference for understanding problem domains).
As they learn one hopes they will grow into their positions and work as servants of the public – trying to make the right decisions out of the cards they’ve been dealt in a context where no one is ever satisfied and where often there are no right answers. Errors will be made. Some of these will be expensive. They will have to bear the consequences of their decisions. Real people will be harmed. Good things will happen too. Great decisions will get made. New programs will be designed … and … let’s be honest … lots of rebranding will occur – old programs with new names will resurface. That is the nature of government.
Citizens have to come to terms with the swings, the back and forth, the other side’s turn at governing. We don’t always do that well and with social media as an amplifier, we observe the reactionaries – we see distraught explosions of fear and anger as people imagine the horrors to come, particularly given campaign rhetoric. The twittersphere becomes rife with accusations and assumptions about what might come next. The newly elected can worsen those fears by starting off with a few ill-conceived actions that will make their entire effort at governing that much more difficult. Some can even feed on the antagonism setting a feedback loop in place or they may truly intend to disempower certain segments of the population that have irritated them. A frightening proposition. So much about intention is unknown. People worry when change happens. An added dimension are the bots that seek to invoke fear and to sow the kind of discord that undermines democracies, and of course there are the wingnuts in all parties who promote extreme ideas that could cause real harm yet to whom the newly elected often owe a debt as they might not be in office had they not gotten those few extra votes.
The reality is that the newly elected are not, I hope, evil villains out to destroy the world. The are ordinary people, as flawed as the rest of us, who bring new perspectives and fresh eyes to persistent problems or to problems a previous administration might not have prioritized. They come with varying levels of openness to new ideas, knowledge, and skills. They are elected because people felt – rightly or wrongly- that a change was needed. They want to be effective. It’s the newly elected’s responsibility to go through the books and consider value. It’s also their right to set new priorities. This can be painful as changes in government often result in spending cuts that can appear to be cold, uncaring, and even foolish to some – and that have real impact on people. This change, though, can also be opportunity for new ideas and ways of doing things to emerge. Democracy is messy.
The newly elected don’t know what they don’t know and they haven’t yet established trust and relationships with the bureaucracy to know who and how to ask for information and whether to trust best advice. They also can’t know the many small ways a particular decision will impact particular groups. That learning only comes after a decision gets made and succeeds or blows up with stakeholders or in the media or causes a flurry of expensive lawsuits. Once trust with the citizenry is ruptured, it becomes very difficult to re-establish and all future actions even those that are thoroughly researched and offered with good intentions could be regarded with suspicion by the public. People tend to remember what went wrong more than what went right and the newly elected would be wise to refrain from a rush to action in the heady early days of their administrations while they learn the lay of the land. That would make the road ahead so much easier. But that is not the nature of humans and every newly elected administration must learn this for themselves. We have seen that through countless changes in government and some administrations never recover from their early missteps.
All citizens can hope for is evidence of learning and a quick humbling of the overly enthusiastic – that the early offerings and rash actions of those eager to govern, built upon partial understandings, shift to more thoughtful and nuanced messaging, discussions, and approaches that serve all people of the jurisdiction, and not just those who voted them into office. That intentional rash actions taken in hopes of provoking what their party feels are necessary shifts, have positive outcomes for citizens. That the newly elected shift quickly from feeling the need to rush into action while at the same time overwhelmed at the bigness of it all, to having enough understanding to set a direction and begin governing. They should do this with an intense dose of humility about their ability to effect change as there will be places in their jurisdictions where even after several years of governing, no one will have cracked open their carefully crafted policy documents.
A new administration’s learning will be always be done through the lens of the governing party’s priorities, worldviews, thinking, and problem-solving capacities. They will be who they will be. They will focus on what they consider important. They will choose their evidence. They will work to the level they are capable of working. If one’s preferred party is not in power, that may be a bitter pill to swallow. That, however, is the nature of democracy and one that we as citizens must come to grips with as it is in no one’s interest for governments to fail. The elected must stumble forward as best they can. We, as citizens, must figure out how to use our voices effectively to influence their decision-making.
How fragile it all seems and what an extraordinary responsibility for educators – to educate and prepare young people who may one day decide to run for public office.
Image: Eldon Garnet’s Equal Before the Law – Toronto, McMurtry Law Gardens near City Hall.