Friday, March 2, 2012

Political organizations as "learning organizations"...serving their members, not vice versa

Process versus Content...this is a vote for the latter over the former!!
I have watched federal and municipal politics for nearly four decades as a journalist, voter, activist, and educator. I have done my share of interviewing of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, over the years, for print, radio and television. And for the most part, I have been struck by the commitment to policies (usually one per interterview session) of the politician to the cause. The question of process, or how to navigate the obstacles to the vote, or how to attract new followers, was invariably left to the backroom, where the deals were concocted, the compromises were proposed and agreed to, and really none of that was any of the reporter's business, unless and until that process spilled out onto the floor of the city council chambers, where political foes debated their opponents' arguments, in a relatively civilized manner, depending often on the strength and degree of respect for the "chair" usually the Mayor.
Today, there seems to have been a significant shift in the political world resulting in the elevation of the process of politics over the political agenda, the issue, the interests of the city, the province or the nation. How to break down the electorate into micro-demographic bytes, and then target that segment with a specific message, while at the same time targetting another "byte" with a different and often conflicting message seems to have become the "expertise" of the political animal, the backroom advisor, the public relations "specialist". Rather than putting the interests of the voter, the citizen, at the top of the list of priorities, the personal, professional ambitions and political interests of the "actor" have taken a larger bite out of both budget and schedule for the politician.
Consequently, money, the collection of money, the methods of raising that money, the accounting for that money, the spending of that money....all of these "issues" (really part of the process) have become the agenda of the political community. Whether or not to "fight" for or against a certain public issue rarely if ever rises to the level of the agenda, because most of the time is spent in housekeeping, publishing and distributing the politicians newsletter, firming and expanding the speaking agenda of the politician so as to "cover" as many potential voters as possible. Running a political organization, even one on behalf of a respected politician, is about attempting to recruit volunteers with specific skills, so that those skills can be put to the use of the political organization, and the message of the health of that organization is often determined by both the quality and the quantity of those volunteers.
Thankfully, they serve, in all political parties, for the benefit of the body politic; however, do they ask if and when the political organization members have anything to say about the core purposes of the political organization. Does it exist to serve the needs of the members, or do the members exist to serve the needs of the organization?
Clearly, the latter is the case almost exclusively.
Consider, for a brief moment, if the former were the case.
Think, for a moment, what it would be like for a political organization to consider itself a "learning organization" in which the members are encouraged to become informed, in detail, about specific public issues that might interest them, through research, through public lectures, reading, and conversations with others interested in the same issue. And think of the organization comprising several groups of growing "learners" in one or two of many issues that face the citizens within the city, province or nation.
Imagine, for a moment, a culture that held as its founding principle the notion that individual members have more to contribute than cash and phone calls or door knocking, or production of various publications on behalf of the organization.
Within each "issue group" (let's call it a workshop or seminar) various opinions would necessarily be both expressed and rebutted, thereby providing a working model of a learning where for that moment, the skill being practised is "debating" in the formal sense. Rules of debates could be applied, with the consent of the group members, and their findings would naturally be presented to the organization for its larger consideration. Perhaps this already happens, and I am merely recommending "formalizing" it.
Members all have learning goals, many of which they may not even be aware of, and all members have a need for some level of community, some association with others who share an interest in the political process, its content, the potential of engagement with it to enhance the lives of those members.
Leaders would inevitably emerge, and so would new ideas, in an operating "greenhouse" of a manageable size that merits consideration, especially for those sharing both membership and interest in the political issues, and the process by which they become enacted.
Let's put the citizen back in citizenship through the political organizations. Let's move the political process, at the manageable level, back to a focussed consideration of the issues and not let the political organization become the prisoner of the "process".
Let's help political organizations become "learning organizations" for the sake of the members, the organization and the city, province, and nation.
And that would mean less sycophancy meted out to the technology, and less sycophancy to the political professionals, the professional fundraisers, the media gurus, the party hierarchies, and the media. Issues would generate a body of both advocates and opponents, and those discussions could find their way into the local media, so that ordinary people would be known not merely as a name, but as someone actively participating in the life of the city, province and nation.
And that would make it very difficult for those whose individual "power needs" are the driving force for their engagement in the political organization.
And, perhaps the organaization's purpose would no longer be merely to "elect" candidate X or Y, but would be a place where the body politic actively concerned with the learning of members, would actively attempt to meet those needs and the organization would, in effect, become the servant of the members, and not the other way round, as it is now.

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