Archive for March, 2011


Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Behind Michael Ignatieff’s snappy “Jack and Gilles” one liner dismissing Stephen Harper’s coalition charges, or explanations for Manitoba Conservative MP Shelly Glover’s “past her expiry date” comment, are dozens of Liberal and Conservative party operatives toiling in utter obscurity. 

Today’s major party campaign “war rooms,”  the partisan nerve centres  of the 2011 election, are objects of fascination for the media but for the most part retain an air of mystery. 

That not much is known about the war rooms, how they operate and who is behind the Great Oz’s curtain, is precisely how the parties prefer the situation.  While the media may be invited to an initial tour in order for the party to prove it is competent and well-funded enough to have a war room,  access to the sanctum is strictly forbidden once the campaign begins – other than of course for tightly scripted media briefings.

The machinery of campaigning was first portrayed in literature by James Joyce in the short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”  In the nearly 100 years since The Dubliners, much has changed  in the management of election campaigns, still the essentials remain – the division of labour into myriad small tasks, the importance of the campaign manager to bring all the pieces together and the need for a cause to motivate people to work much harder than they normally might at their regular job. 

An updated view of the “committee room” would start with a basic definition of what is the purpose of the war room.  It is a) the headquarters of the national campaign and b) the central office for the 308 constituency campaigns.  For the party in power, the war room is the bureaucracy of a government-in-exile: for the opposition it is the bureaucracy of a government-in-waiting. 

Physically, the war room is generally a floor in an inexpensive and non-descript suburban office building full of mostly young men and women with a few old guys lurking in the back.  The furniture is rented and the trappings are sparse and functional.  All of which raises the question why the government itself cannot be run in such a cost-conscious manner.

If you were to somehow get past the electronic keypad and the bored security guard, you could wander through the floor finding these islands of clumped work stations.  The largest unit is the leader’s Tour office.  Their responsibility is to make all the arrangements for the hundreds of meetings, greetings and speeches that the party leader will make during the course of even short campaign. 

Pressure to perform permeates the air in Tour: Either the leader gets to Saskatoon or he or she does not and the media lie in wait for such little slip ups as the leader in St. John and the luggage in St. John’s.

 As the leader’s schedule can change daily and rapidly, the Tour department work the longest hours and only get a breather when they are certain the boss is in bed, with the door locked from the inside.

Next in the archipelago of the war room will be the isle of candidate support.  These people liaise with the local campaigns making sure they have signs and brochures, are ready should the leader or an important speaker come to town and more or less stick to the script of the overall campaign.  The latter always causes headaches.  Constant tension arises from what the local campaign thinks they need to say to win support in the constituency and what the national campaign thinks they need to say to bolster and amplify the national messages. 

It is the bane of the war room when a local candidate decides that what he or she heard from a cousin has more appeal to voters than the messaging for which the top campaign officials will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to write, test in focus groups and polls and most importantly convinced the leader to approve.  A party cannot afford one war room staffer for each constituency so an individual worker will cover generally 8 to 10 constituencies grouped by definable regions within the province.

Working closely with the Candidate Support desks will be much smaller provincial and regional desks that look after broader political and message issues.  For instance, a Quebec desk and a British Columbia desk are set up in order to deal with the insular dynamics of those duchies.

A bigger island next door will be the Media Unit.  The leader’s campaign bus, plane or hay wagon will have its own elite media unit including a couple of official spokespersons.   The Media Unit in the war room is well away from the spotlight of the leader’s tour (of which more will be written later).  They monitor the local media, push out media releases following up with phone calls to receptive reporters and field the hundreds of media questions that flow in every day. 

They also run the now obligatory party television studio which besides serving as a media centre for press conferences also produces television clips to send to local TV stations.  The national television news services tend not to run these clips preferring their own tapes. However, a television station in rural Ontario is not going to send their one camera person on any leaders’ campaign bus.  They appreciate a bit of unique tape to which they can add their own commentary.

Our tour of the war room is not complete, but no one spends just one day visiting the Hawaiian Islands. More to come on the InterChange tour of backroom Canada.


Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Jesse Ventura got it right when he said that you can’t legislate morality–nor can you legislate values, culture, or attitudes. But it looks like that is exactly what the City of San Francisco is planning on doing as it considers legislating community policing.  

A story in yesterday’s San Francisco Examiner  says legislation has been introduced that would make community policing part of the City code.  The legislation is the initiative of Supervisor David Campos  who says the police department has to improve its community policing. 

According to the article,  the legislation spells out tactics and strategies to be used by the City’s force to bring it closer to the communities it serves. Among other things, it calls for community training for officers, “two-way communication” through newsletters or other “social network tools” between police stations and the community.

Those tactics make perfect sense. What doesn’t make sense, is that it should take legislation to get the San Francisco PD to integrate them in their operations. 

Community policing is more about police culture, values and attitudes than it is about tactics.  By codifying how the police should interact with San Franciscans Supervisor Campos has highlighted a leadership and culture problem within the force; he has done nothing to fix it.


Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

BC premier-designate Christy Clark campaigned for the leadership of the BC Liberal party as an outsider committed to change. And while most observers curious about what that change could look like will be waiting to see the make-up of her new cabinet, how (and how quickly) she plans to implement her promise of an open and socially networked government might be a better measuring stick for real change.

Perhaps it’s as a result of the last few years spent in conversations with British Columbians as host of a popular call-in show on Vancouver radio station CKNW, or perhaps she was making a virtue out of necessity; but throughout her campaign, Clark made a point  of stressing a strong desire to engage citizens in finding solutions to the challenges the province faces.

Her Open Government Online project outlines a number of measures that, if implemented, would represent an open government revolution of sorts.  It’s not just that her proposals go further than those of other mainstream parties–including the federal Liberals–it’s that she has made this a central political theme.   

Among the key elements of her initiative is the creation of a dedicated site where issues identified by various government departments would be the subject of open and collaborative discussion and review with the aim of improving policy and program delivery.

Such a proposal may seem anodyne, but if implemented, it would result in a fundamental shift in how information is shared, processed and approved within the government. It would also challenge our traditional notions of ministerial accountability.

Other elements of Clark’s open gov initiative include:

  • Greater online engagement by the premier, cabinet and legislators;
  • Online voting
  • Enhanced online transparency
  • Open data

But this ambitious agenda faces several hurdles, not the least of which is getting the attention it deserves and needs within the machinery of government.

Between now and mid-March when she will be sworn in as BC’s 35th premier, Christy Clark will be receiving daily briefings on government operations, going about the necessary mending of fences and bruised egos that are part of every leadership race, and choosing a new cabinet from a caucus that (save for one member) did not support her.  

This crowded agenda will mean a long wait in the queue for most issues already in the government pipeline; meaning that new and complex policy proposals such as her open government initiative may not get the attention they need to make it to the premier’s “first 100 days list”.   

If implemented, Clark’s vision of a connected, open government which recognizes that data is a public good would create a test bed for new and exciting ways to imagine our democracy. It would certainly help develop an open-government narrative that resonates with ordinary Canadians and not just with techies, bureaucrats or academics. Ultimately, it would spur other governments to follow suit.

What better strategy for a premier looking for ways to put her stamp on the BC government than leading this democratic revolution?  

However, if this made-in-BC revolution falls by the wayside, victim of bureaucratic incrementalism, it will represent not just a lost opportunity to re-engage citizens in  government and democracy–but an opportunity that may not present itself again for another decade.