Saturday, April 24, 2010

SPCs Talk at Labour Party Environment Forum

Here is what I plan to say - but there is an hours journey to get there - it could all change!

Hello, my name is Phoebe Bright and I'm a member of Cork Environmental Forum, on the executive of Feasta (an Economics think tank), a Long Term Thinker, a Techie and a horse addict. I'm going to speak very briefly, only the role of SPCs, my experience of sitting on one of the Cork County SPCs and a couple of suggestions for how we can make them more effective.

Each County and City Council has a number Strategic Policy Committees made up roughly equal numbers of councillors and external representatives from organisations representing the environment, economic and social pillars. The expectation for SPCs was that they could provide a different perspective during policy development. For example, the policy planning unit might feel they don't more input into the farmer's market's. Should there be provisions in the upcoming Development Plans and if so what? A good question for an SPC. Or, are there enough provisions for dogs in the City? If not, what changes to policy should we consider?

That, as far as I can see from the documentation, was the expectation. The reality for me, and many of my fellow external representatives, was that the SPC had become another tick box on the road to policy implementation. Typically, we would receive documents for the next meeting a few days before the meeting, or at the meeting and we would spend 20 mins reviewing the Retail Policy for the City. As the councillors had already participated in discussion on this policy during it's development, they had nothing more to say other than to repeat their position on this policy and the external representatives were desperately looking to find something intelligent to contribute from a hasty reading of the document. As we saw these documents near the end of their progress from idea to publication, there was little chance of our input having any impact, even when we were able to make useful contributions. There was an understandable air of frustration from many of those involved.

The SPCs have lately been disbanded and reformed and we hope for better things going forward. I certainly feel the idea of the SPC is valid and could of great benefit in widening the discussion on policy and helping the external representatives and their organisations to better understand the thinking behind policy development and to challenge the mindset of the of the elected councillors.

I would ask you to consider two thoughts going forward, first the questions we ask and second the language we use.

Beth Novak did a talk on for the Long Now Foundation on what Obama's administration has done on Open Government in the last year, what they have learned and their plans for the future. On President Obama's first day in office he signed a memorandum on Open Government, committing all the departments and agencies to "transparency, participation, and collaboration. One of the lessons they have learnt to successfully encourage participation and collaboration is to ask good questions. In this case, good questions are SMART questions (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relavent and Time bound) So if you are an elected member and an issue arises during the development of policy, why not suggest that this be brought before an SPC? If you are on an SPC, try to get these types of questions on the agenda.

Beth Novak's talk on Open Government:

The second suggestion comes from a gem in the book The Intelligence Advantage . The book talks about how culture is about language, the way we talk about our problems, the way we listen and the way we discuss. If we want to test whether change is happening, then all we have to do is listen to the way that language is used. If that has not changed, the culture is not changing either.

So if we want a different discussion in our SPCs, a different perspective and viewpoint, then we need to change the balance so that the councillors are drawn into a different conversation. At present the Chair of each SPC is part of the council, so my suggestion is to have the meetings chaired or facilitated by an external representative.

I could am happy to share further experiences and ideas for SPCs and open government, so please feel free to catch me in the next break or contact me later.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Language of Change

Dipping into The Intelligence Advantage - Organizing for Complexity by Michael D McMaster a gem of a book, I came across this section, which seems particularly pertinent to our situation in Ireland.

Organisations first appear in Language

Language is at the center of society, cooperation and the coordination of action. All social organization occurs in language. Community is a function of language. How we distinguish those who "belong" from those who do not is by the way they speak. Even when the distinction is based on common practices, these practices emerge from a society where language was the fundamental organizing medium.

A corporation, like a community, is held together by it's language, given meaning by its language, and is distinguished from other corporations by its language. IBM, Apple and NEC (that dates it!) all have unique language, unique stories and unique ways of speaking. Equally important, their unique ways of understanding things and listening. These ways of speaking, listening and understanding not only constitute the culture of a company, but they also constitute a company's unique way of organizing, managing and relating to the marketplace....

and further on...

If there is no change in the way that problems are described, the way challenges are spoken about, or the way values are stated, then it is very unlikely that any major change is occurring in that corporation.

I think there is a groundswell of opinion in Ireland that significant change is required in the culture of our public organisations. We will know that our decision makers and politicians also want change when we here a change in the language they use to describe our problems and how they talk about the future.