Sunday, June 14, 2009

Times changing in Iran?

Many of us that take an interest in politics and public affairs have been captivated by the unrest in Iran following the general election there. Strong feelings are evoked by the images of people taking to the streets in defiance of a system which they feel has cheated them of their voice. The fundamental question to me is what exactly are we seeing? Without delving into the complicated history of the 1953 and 1979 revolutions there are a few important elements to keep an eye on.

Iran is a complex society that we in North America tend to think of in caricature, if at all. The image of the fanatical mullah conveys little sense of the size, historical depth or ethnic diversity of Iran. To put it another way we are discussing a place with over 70 million people, a settled history dated back over 9000 years, and with constitutional recognition of 4 regional languages in addition to Persian. In large part it is elements of this complexity that have created the confrontations we are seeing on our televisions.

That large population is also young, with around 2/3 of Iranians under the age of 30. Increasingly that population is urban, and women are playing an ever-increasing role in the workforce and the professions. In short Iran is undergoing a period of demographic instability, combined with a political system dominated by the men who either made or participated in the revolution of 1979. In other words men who were politically active before more than 2/3 of their citizens were even alive.

Within that profound generational power gap there are also several other political flashpoints. As the population has grown it has migrated to the cities, with over 60% of the population living in urban areas now and that number is expected to rise to 80% by 2030. This has created frictions between the now-preponderant population centers and a political system divided into 30 (theoretically) equal provinces. In addition the concentration of the oil resources that provide 45% of government revenue in a few provinces heightens the division between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

In short there are a great many internal divisions and interest groups within the country. Dividing the people we see on TV into ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful. The politics of Iran are no more black and white than any other political jurisdiction's. The theocratic nature of the regime does tend to evoke dichotomous language from both critics and supporters, however. It is also worth remembering just how much control the Supreme Council (of Clerics) possesses. They select or vet candidates for all offices, and all state structures report back to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, or the Council of Guardians. The position of President, while important, is not equivalent to his American counterpart or our Prime Minister.

With all that said we are witnessing a repressive regime being pressured toward change. This is not an easy process, and building pressure tends to lead to repression, which in turn tends to lead to violence. At this point the Iranian security forces have exercised restraint, and provided they continue to do so without losing their cohesion and loyalty to the state this unrest will likely subside. It will subside having left a lasting impression on the mindset of the country, however, particularly on the young and urban workforce who feel excluded by the regime. This election may thus serve as a source inspiration and motivation for those seeking to create change in Iran. If the shooting starts the impact may be considerably more immediate.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Politics is really Logistics, Folks.

The minority Parliaments of recent years have been reflective of the changed circumstances in Canadian politics. In addition to the in the electoral map the political reality is that we have now joined the Americans in living in a state of permanent campaign. What interests me is how poorly Canadian political parties have adjusted to this, in organizational terms. Traditionally in Canadian politics campaigns have been viewed as a unique activity, which they are, and as something separate from the day-to-day realities of political life, which they are not - if in fact they ever were.

This view that campaigns were a sui generis activity has crippled the Liberal Party in recent years. The party has failed to create a central database, resulting in the fragmentation and hoarding of the available data. The drawbacks to that are obvious, and exacted a heavy penalty in organizational terms. In addition building an ongoing relationship between the organization (as distinct from the candidate) and its supporters has not been a priority. The absence of such a relationship has resulted in seriously reduced membership numbers, with the concomitant drag on fundraising. This is especially significant given the $1100 individual donation cap, which rules out the traditional Canadian political fundraising tactic of large corporate and individual donations.

These are all failings of basic organizational performance, which the current leadership and the membership of the party appear to have acknowledged. The hiring of Rocco Rossi as national director and the acclimation of Alfred Apps as party president has placed a pair of strong organization-builders at the top. They have a great deal of work to do to make their organization competitive again.

That said the Conservative party is currently considered to be the organizational standard in Canadian politics. They have done a better job of this that the others, but even their ‘success’ needs to be put in perspective. Their ‘machine’ has only managed minority governments, despite a crippled Liberal party and marginal NDP and Bloc. Even the ‘vast’ conservative fundraising effort only brought in $4 million in the 1st quarter of 2009. That is enough money to franchise and open one Tim Horton’s shop, maybe two in smaller locations. Hardly overwhelming, and the fact that the Liberals raised under half that number is an indictment of them, not a compliment to the Conservatives. Currently no Canadian party can count even 1% of the population as members.

In short all Canadian political parties are struggling to manage their organizational challenges as well as the communications and data challenges presented by a web 2.0 society. Acquiring and managing data as well as building up an engaged membership who are willing to contribute time and money is an ongoing process. It is essential to view the politics as an ongoing or organic process, not one of periods of stability punctuated by elections.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Politics and Social Media

The wireless revolution, with devices like the Blackberry and the Iphone making it possible to walk around in constant touch with the internet in addition to the ubiquity of cellular phones, constitute a sea change in the way people communicate. Here in Alberta the recent debate over Bill 44 (see post below) energized a politically aware population to reach out to one another via the new ‘social media’ of Twitter, Facebook etc. What was revealed was that these media had the power to bring together hundreds of people, both specialists and non-specialists, in direct contact in real time. This new information environment is going to change the way politics in Canada works.

There are a number of elements to this process of change, but for today I want to concentrate on two. The first is the importance of information management. The single greatest advantage of these new digital communication media is also their greatest weakness – essentially limitless access to information. On the up side this means that it is possible to access information about events or individuals with ease. On the other hand it is difficult to track the importance of a given piece of information, given the sheer mass of data.

To cope with the drawbacks inherent in the sheer scope of the available information a few things are necessary. The first is proper use of modern database technology, with which the social media world is a treasure trove of data as well as another platform for discourse. The second is the ability to dedicate the time to learning how to use the technology and to understand the players who are important to the issues that matter to you. This will allow you to sift the wheat from the chaff with greater ease.

To take advantage of the up side you need to get your voice out there, and contribute to the discussion. There is enormous potential to build relationships with potential supporters and allies, and to keep an eye on the thinking and actions of your political rivals. Recognize the strengths of these media, and attempt to add content and respond constructively to those who reach out to you. Press releases are best done elsewhere – link to them in social media, don’t treat them as content.

That leads me to the second major area I wanted to talk about today - messaging. With the move into the information-rich environment of social media the importance of a clear and coherent message becomes magnified. It is possible, via twitter and Google, for a potential policy resolution to be leaked, the research inspected and thousands of decisions made before the document is even announced. It also means that everyone on your team is now a part of your communications staff, whether you want them to be or not! As a result politicians and political parties are going to find that the value of a powerful vision and solid communications preparation are magnified.

The development and rapid spread of social media is an evolutionary challenge for the inhabitants of the political jungle. Those who are able to develop clear and compelling visions and then build strong relationships will prosper. Those who treat social media as an annex to traditional non-interactive mediums will be punished by receiving less information and fewer new allies. In blunt terms the first party to understand and develop the potential of social media to meet and develop its supporters will have a lasting advantage over their competition.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Be Concise!

Mental note - I can see from looking at my previous post that too much time in the academic world is ruining my prose. I will work on brevity in future.

Bill 44 Creates a Window of Opportunity

I opposed Bill 44 as a piece of poorly thought out and unnecessary legislation which is open to several forms of abuse. There may or may not be an entry on this blog regarding that - while I have written one the bill has been passed, and so in another sense has the relevance of that discussion. What is left to discuss is the impact on, and outlook for, the prospects for increased citizen engagement here in Alberta. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the process of Bill 44 here in Alberta is the discussion it has engendered about the engagement of people in the political process. For those looking for information on Bill 44 itself or the debate regarding it please see Ken Chapman's excellent breakdown on his blog, and you can check out all the twitter action via the #Bill44 hashtag. Not coincidentally it is this lively online conversation that engendered the thinking behind this post.

Alberta is not known for its lively grassroots democracy these days. The exact whys and wherefores of that are a debate in and of themselves, but among the front runners are the entrenched one-party system here and the voter placidity engendered by several decades of prosperity. The result was an election with (off the top of my head) 41% voter turnout. This pitiful turnout resulted in 501,000 votes for the PCs, 251,000 for the Liberals and 81,000 for the NDP. In terms of seats in the Alberta legislature the counts are PC-72 Lib-9 and NDP-2. These results go a long way to explaining why the PC party is content with the status quo. (Or perhaps they are the status quo?) Both of the opposition parties are small and organizationally impoverished, which is another chicken-or-egg conversation.

The upshot is that the PC party still operates in fundamentally the same way as it did during the early 1990s. Communication is limited and decidedly non-interactive, and consultation even within the PC party itself is limited. There were a series of hopeful moves by the government after Mr. Stelmach won the election, as the PCs moved towards taking advantage of the new Web 2.0 world with promising moves like the creation of mypcmla. This momentum seems to have petered out, a symptom of which was the departure of the caucus’s new social media guru. Instead what happened was a conversation within the twitterverse and blogosphere that was overwhelmingly negative to Bill 44, and the government was unable to introduce its own view effectively to defend its legislation.

Efforts to do just that failed, and the Culture Minister, Lindsay Blackett, simply came across as dismissive and condescending. During the Bill 44 conversation on twitter Blackett posted this to his Twitter feed "finally got to some of the opposition's misinformation in the Leg today... I don't expect the media will pick-up on it." He followed this petulant post with another during the debate itself "is amazed at the continued fearmongering by the opposition, intelligent people who read the bill can see through it." Referring to concerns about your legislation as misinformation or fear mongering while implying quite directly that those who disagree with you are lacking in intelligence is not using the new medium to open a conversation. What is depressing is that this knee jerk was all the reaction we got, and it was of less value than a traditional press release. A priceless opportunity wasted for the government to speak to citizens and engage with them.
What this process has revealed about the government's attitudes toward dialogue and improving communication is not pretty. That said the current culture of complacency in Alberta politics has done the PC party a world of good, so there is a very rational argument to be made for the status quo. Several people I know who work for the party have talked about increasing voter engagement, but when push came to shove and their ideas needed backing the support they received has ranged from tepid to nonexistent. To quote another twitter commentator "AB_Baby@wunderbar @trasie #ableg I said something similar earlier. the govt keeps the silent majority silent by refusing to listen time after time"

In contrast to that feeling of estrangement as I write this on the 3rd of June there are 3300+ members of the Facebook group “Students Against Bill 44”. A number of those people are not Albertans, but the group may constitute one of the larger issue-based gatherings of voters this year none the less. The topic twitter feed (#Bill44) climbed as high as 6th on the list of most active tags during the final week leading up to the passage of the Bill. A Calgary Herald story regarding the Bill has attracted over 1200 comments on the website as I write this. In short there is a very considerable public involvement in responding to this bill. Interestingly several PC MLAs informed me that the correspondence they had received on the subject was in the area of 2-1 in favour. This contrasts with the overwhelmingly negative response on twitter and Facebook, and forces us to consider why this difference exists and what it means for citizen engagement.

I would argue that the divergence between the submissions to government MLAs and the majority expression in the online discussion is indicative of the extent to which most Albertans have become detached from the “formal” political process. Fewer than half of registered voters even bothered to cast their ballots in the last provincial election, and given the labour mobility in this province you would expect a considerable body of unregistered voters as well. As an aside, on the issue of alienation, there is also the question of to what extent those who disagree with the government would be willing to take the time to communicate with their MLA if they feel ignored or dismissed. This to my mind is the real issue with statements like those of Mr. Blackett quoted above – such things serve to widen the gap between people and their representatives.

That being said I think there is a very real opportunity here to build on the momentum created by the discussion of this bill. I mean momentum not in a partisan sense, but in the sense that there are a large number of people trying to become active citizens. It presents all elements of the Alberta political spectrum with an opportunity to learn from and educate in turn the people of the province. It behooves us all to make the effort to get out there and try. There are several members of the government caucus who ‘get it’, and kudos are due to Mr. Elniski and Mr. Denis. It is my hope that more of our representatives in the Legislature and organizations and individuals outside it as well will work toward developing modern communication strategies and learn from one another!