This evening I heard a presentation where the invited expert, a researcher in public issue communications, made an appeal for “dialogue” in public disputes, as opposed to adversarial confrontation.
In essence, her brief centered on listening, versus arguing, and seeking the common ground as the basis of public decision-making. It sounds admirable and unassailable in theory, but I wonder about real-world practice.
Arguably, the essential ingredients in dialogue include:
Time — breathing space for facts to be discovered, agreed upon, absorbed; for emotions to settle; for proposals and counter-proposals to be examined; for differences to be narrowed; for a modicum of trust to develop, if absent at the outset.
Trust — in the integrity of one’s adversary; in the facts, evidence, science or data presented; in the intention of mutual reciprocity.
Reconcilable values — which can indeed be accommodated in resolving the matter in dispute (not all values are compatible, no matter how much dialogue occurs, and that’s where the toughest political choices must be made).
Without any one of these, dialogue is doomed.
But my skepticism for this article centers on time — actually the lack of it. Specifically, the lack of breathing space for part-time local elected officials to absorb and evaluate fast-changing circumstances, unanticipated events and forces, more involved and demanding constituents, and ever more complex information and choices.
Given the time constraints confronting part-time Councillors, I’m beginning to question whether quality decision-making of any kind, let alone democratic dialogue, is even remotely feasible in local NZ government.
Councils do devote time to the rituals of public consultation. But the higher the stakes, the more settled the views of Councils already are when the process begins. On the big issues, Councils don’t have time for serious dialogue with an (assumed to be) uninformed public, and so they put forward fully-baked proposals, build momentum for them, and entertain only marginal adjustments.
Sometimes we might rightly question their motivations … but often they just want to get on with it. After all, they’re trying to drink out of a fire hose!
If this is a problem — and I’d love to hear from Councillors who believe it is not — then what are some remedies? I’d suggest:
1. Take as much as possible off the table. Take the absurdly microscopic trivia off Councillors’ agendas to make room for the bigger issues. Having sat through many hours of mind-numbing discussion of matters not worthy of an intermediate school student council, I can attest that Councillors are their own worst enemy … they’re biologically addicted to minutiae.
2. Insist, on the big issues, that Council staff frame genuine, reasonable alternatives for consideration that are equally researched and worthy of debate.
3. Provide staff support — or a research budget — to individual Councillors, so they can intelligently and independently probe and debate the serious issues.
4. Establish the expectation that serving as a Councillor is a full-time commitment, and reinforce that expectation with commensurate pay. Forget this romantic 19th century notion that individuals can hold down full-time private employment and concurrently serve effectively as part-time elected officials. It’s nonsense, unless they’re prepared to work as hard as a Mayor Yule.
If steps like these are taken to re-focus and equip Councillors to face the complex challenges of 21st century local government, then we can begin to worry about involving the public in the party in some more meaningful way. Meantime, why pretend? The way things are today, more public dialogue would be just another wave across the partly submerged deck.