Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reboot 2.0, or herding cats.

This past weekend was the Reboot Alberta 2.0 conference, which following on the striking success of the first I made time to attend. For my summary of Reboot 1 and some links to other responses see http://myroundhouse.blogspot.com/2009/11/response-to-reboot.html.

I, like the vast majority of the participants, found the November Reboot event profoundly stimulating and energizing. Obviously my hope going in to the second event was that the group would be able to build on that momentum. I was also looking forward to seeing what the larger attendance inspired by the success of the first event would bring; in particular if the event would see the arrival of provincial elected officials. With that said I also wanted to see how the challenges of growth, especially the challenges of raised expectations and the practical difficulties of recapturing the freewheeling discussions of Reboot 1 in a larger group.

The dissatisfaction that motivated many of us to attend the first Reboot, and by extension the second, was put on display for me early Saturday morning. During the first session I found myself at a table with a grade 11 student, who had decided to come (mother in tow) to take part in the event as the result of a trip their school had taken to an MLA-for-a-day event at the legislature. Despite being excited to attend that event what they saw had profoundly disillusioned this individual, who was startled by the blind partisanship and shortsightedness they witnessed. In addition they found the way their group of enthusiastic youth were treated, "like our enthusiasm was cute and they knew they'd never see us again", profoundly off-putting. While this anecdote only speaks directly to the mind of one person the feeling that the system is less responsive and less engaging than it could and should be is, I think, at the root of what created this gathering.

In the event there were several key differences between Reboot 1 and Reboot 2. Firstly it was simply larger; while obviously as an attendee I do not have access to the organizers' information by my count the attendance at Reboot 2 was at least 50% larger than Reboot 1 with at least 120+ in the room on Saturday morning. Secondly Reboot 2 was much more structured in approach than Reboot 1. The structure of the discussions was based on the outlines developed at the first event, which had a couple of important impacts on the weekend.

It was the combination of these two differences which I think led to the initial frustration of the 40 or more of us in attendance who had also been at Reboot 1. Shannon Sortland blogged about this here: http://www.rebootalberta.org/index.php/home/my-initial-rebootab-20-thoughts-pre-230pm-saturday-by-shannon-sortland.html In short many of us who had attended the first event felt like much of the activity on Saturday was a 'Cole's notes' version of Reboot 1 - or perhaps more accurately a remedial course for the majority of the attendees who had not been at the first event. At the time, like Shannon, I found this very frustrating. As the day wore on, and in the days since, I have realized that my frustration reflected an unrealistic desire to forge ahead on the assumption that everyone who had missed the first event had somehow absorbed all of the information arising from it nonetheless. In fact until mid-afternoon on Saturday what we were doing, in fact, was not building on the previous event but bringing a wider circle of people up to speed on the conversation.

The fact that this process went as quickly as it did was the up side of the structuring of the event based on the 'streams' arising from Reboot 1. What the use of the outcomes of Reboot 1 cost Reboot 2 was the magic of that open-ended process. That being said I'm not at all sure that with the numbers present at last weekend's meeting that the methodology of the first meeting could have worked anyway. At Reboot 1 the discussion group for "Change within the existing system" had 14 of us. On Saturday afternoon I was part of a group of 30. 14 people is a manageable conversation, 30 is much less so and requires more structure and provides less interactivity.

As a result by Saturday afternoon, despite some really excellent exchanges and good ideas, I was getting frustrated that we didn't seem to be breaking any new ground. That said I would like to thank everyone in the final afternoon session - I thought there were a lot of interesting/challenging things said! On the whole I was frustrated at the outcome of Saturday as we ended the formal sessions, as I had come looking to exchange ideas on action to be taken, not the continued identification of problems. the problem here is, of course, that my dissatisfaction was completely unreasonable. First of all you can never recapture the magic of a new thing. Secondly the connections and conversations taking place were invaluable, and need to be acknowledged as such independent of my personal agenda going in. Where else in Alberta last weekend were PC MLAs, Liberal Strategists, NDP researchers and Wild Rose members all sitting down to talk with unaffiliated citizens and people from the civil service, the ATB and a spectrum of non-profits?

Things began to turn around for me personally almost as soon as dinner was served, however. My table, a most lively collection of people, was positively abuzz with ideas and proposals on how to effect changes of all kinds moving forward. Having a bunch of spontaneously witty people certainly helped liven things up too, though I certainly didn't add much to that part myself, sadly. Following that the migration of a large part of the overall group to a pub certainly helped shake things up too, mixing up individuals and groups rather thoroughly.

The upshot was a Sunday session completely different in tone and nature than Saturday. In short Sunday was what I came for - the 'OK, now what?" phase. A series of ideas, proposals and metrics were advanced for further discussion via http://www.rebootalberta.org/ and the forums community there. I encourage Albertans of every stripe to join that community and the conversations taking place there! It would have been good to have seen more representation from the Wild Rose, and the absence of the folks from the Manning Centre was also a loss. Other than that I found the variety of voices in the room both stimulating and encouraging, as was the sheer depth of knowledge available on a wide range of public policy challenges.

I learned a great deal last weekend, and I look forward to learning a great deal more in the months to come. It is in that arena of exchanging ideas and facilitating conversation that I see the future of Reboot - a larger-scale civic camp perhaps, or a common area for people of divergent interests and inclinations to meet and exchange ideas and arguments without the direct investment of partisan competition. As a movement to improve the exchange of ideas and help promote a healthier political culture here in Alberta I definitely think there is a place for Reboot as we move forward.

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