Thursday, 31 March 2011

"I only ever see you when there's an election!"

The above is an example of a typical complaint levelled at politicians by constituents, seemingly unhappy that their door hasn't been knocked more often by their elected representatives. At face value it seems a perfectly valid complaint but if you think about it, why is it a complaint at all? Do any of us actually sit at home thinking that what we really need right now is a knock on the door from a politician?

Let's start off by acknowledging that it had never been easier to contact your local politician. All have email addresses, many publish mobile numbers and a fair few have embraced Twitter & Facebook. It may be true that in some cases these accounts are managed by assistants but it doesn't take much to get a personal response from your target. There aren't many MLA's who won't be able to meet face to face at relatively short notice and to his credit, the DRD minister can be contacts directly through twitter.

With that in mind, a complaint about lack of contact can only refer to that of the politician making initial contact either through doorstepping or publishing newsletters and the like (but I'm not going to cover that right now).

When it comes to doorstepping, outside of election periods, it is a great way to canvass opinion and assess what the issues of the day are but is that really what we want our MLA's doing with their time? After all, they were elected to legislate (the clue is in the title) and that is what they are paid for.

Of course they could get out and meet the people on their own tome but do we really expect our politicians to sacrifice their social lives completely? Yes, they need info on public opinion to help shape their policy but does it have to be the politician that collects the info?

Parties should, and some do, organise activists to conduct periodical doorstep canvassing to ensure that the public are engaged but let's not resort to tired and cliched criticism of our politicians when in truth there is no shortage of genuine criticism that can be thrown their way.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Responsibility for governing is on all of us

As we approach the elections there is, as usual, no shortage of people who point out that they won't be voting and will provide a variety of reasons to justify their decision. I use the word 'justify' because I believe that the decision to not exercise your right to vote does need to be justified.

I am not in favour of compulsory voting, I don't believe that people should participate in the process solely because they have too but it does at least ensure that elected officials have a true mandate from the entire voting population. What I would prefer however is if we could adopt an approach to voting that made it socially unacceptable to abstain entirely from the process.

People often complain that there is no one to vote for who best represents their views as if they have some entitlement to such a thing. They don't. If you genuinely can't find anyone or any party that you can bear to vote for then the obligation to provide an alternative is yours.

We have the right to self governance through a democratic process but not the right to be governed. There is a crucial difference.

I'm not going to pretend that mounting effective opposition to the established parties is easy but it is always an option and I am thankful to live in a country that affords all it's citizens that right.

The odds are stacked heavily against new parties and Independents but only because they lack numbers which surely, in a democracy, is how it should be? If you want to govern, take your argument to the people and convince more of them to join you than the other guys.

More often than not, the big boys win but the fact they are challenged at all is what is important. That responsibility falls on us all and if you don't want it fine, but don't complain until you have provided an alternative.

Monday, 28 March 2011

NI Politics playing catch up with Social Media.

If people think that the importance of effective use of social media to political campaigns is overrated they should look closely at possibly the most successful political campaign of modern times: that of Barack Obama. Make no mistake - remove the social media element of Obama's campaign and he would still be the junior senator from Illinois. Social media didn't just help the Obama campaign, it was the lifeblood of it.

Of course it is theoretically possible that the senior campaign personnel in our Northern Ireland political outfits know better than the world class political operators that run American presidential campaigns but really, is it likely? I think they themselves would probably admit that there is a gulf in class which begs the question; why not learn from them?

Politicians the world over know that nothing beats a personal vote. People like to know who they're voting for and that doesn't mean name recognition. It means that people like to feel as if they know the person on a personal basis. For years the best way for politicians to achieve this has been the traditional canvass and indeed, it is still essential. However, tools like Facebook and Twitter allow you to do this at any time and with none of the negative aspects that doorstepping can bring. So why wouldn't you?

I have been trying to compile a comprehensive list of all candidates for the Assembly and Local Elections. That's not so hard a task but when I try to locate Twitter & Facebook ID's or campaign websites it's not so easy. For me this represents a lack of forward thinking, competence and organisation from campaign directors in Northern Ireland. This info should be prominent on the party websites. If candidates don't have these accounts why is there no question as to why not?

It frustrates me that another election will go by where a large group of voters who are crying out for engagement will be once again ignored because the politicians of the day refuse to adapt and learn.

Friday, 25 March 2011

UUP in need of Overriding Vision

The Ulster Unionist Party have had, by any account, a truly awful week: Party Vice Chair resigns after Michael McGimpsey decides not to go ahead with the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin; Special Advisor to Danny Kennedy, Brian Crowe is dismissed after some quite serious allegations about his conduct; and to round up the bad week, after Basil McRea and John McAllister gift Stephen Nolan an interview where they explicitly clash with their Leader over the prospect of Sinn Fein gaining the First Minister post, David McNarry just about lost all control on the radio and publicly lambasted the troublesome duo even calling into question their suitability as candidates.

On examination, the issue with Brian Crowe is actually the easiest for the party to deal with. This wasn't a problem with policy nor did it arise through internal party problems and as such it's hard to level any blame at the party itself. Embarrassing? Certainly, but it's one of those things that could happen to any party at any time, no matter who was in charge or how strong a party.The other two issues are the real indicators of just how much trouble the UUP are really in and that is because they highlight the big problem for the party: there is no joined up thinking.

It is almost impossible to have a truly democratic political grouping where all the members agree on all the issues. Those joining parties accept that there are compromises on policy that they have to make in order to be a part of something striving for something more important; that of an overriding vision of how you wish to govern and be governed. Look across the political spectrum across the UK and you will see that other parties, whilst having dissenters in the ranks, can still maintain discipline and present a truly united front when it matters, particularly at election time. Labour, for example, is filled with internal feuds and warring factions but they have a common purpose which is to govern as social democrats and shape British politics along the left wing. In Northern Ireland, the DUP remains a right of centre party with a strong Christian base. Those joining and supporting are under no illusions.

For years, the UUP's one overriding vision was that of securing Northern Ireland's position in the Union. Well, that job is done and there are very few who think that responsibility isn't safe in the hands of the DUP. If that's the case, what is the point of the UUP? What vision do they sell to their members? What are we for and what are we selling to the electorate?

It could be argued that the UUP offer, as they have always claimed, an open house where moderates are welcomed and religion not the issue of the day. Why then, has there been talk from the leadership of strengthening the links with the Orange Order? Not only does that exclude Catholics but it also sends a message to the more liberal Christians and those who aren't interested in religion at all that the UUP at heart, is still a party for Protestant people. That may be the message that the leadership want and it may even come to pass that it is indeed the plan but if so, say so and let your members know now so they can get behind it or leave. Of course, if the UUP do decide to go down that path the next valid question will be why not just join the DUP?

For me, the UUP has an opportunity to reshape the party along broadly moderate, centre ground policy. Unfortunately, the current leader is incapable. By all accounts, Tom Elliott is a nice man and a decent man but that counts for nothing in leadership terms. A leader who wants to revitalise and bring about reform needs to make tough, ruthless decisions. In this case, it will be the decision that costs the party a good chunk of it's membership as they go across to the DUP. A good leader would be prepared to take the risk in order to achieve the aim of attracting new blood into the party, united under a clear vision of what the party is trying to achieve.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Women in Politics & Boardrooms.

Seeing as today is International Women's Day, I thought it might be an idea to write about one of the big issues that is often raised as an example of where there is clear evidence that women are still not equal to men; that of the top levels of politics and business.

There is no doubt that women are grossly under-represented in these areas. There is also no doubt (at least for the non sexist of us) that women are equally capable of performing these roles just as well as men. So, are women being held back and kept from taking their place amongst the elite because of an inherently sexist attitude amongst those who decide who progresses and who doesn't? I'm not so sure. I think it has little to do with any deliberate desire to favour men over women and more to do with outdated and unfair working practices that, unintentionally, favour men purely because men are more often than not in a better placed decision to make the sacrifices that politics and big business demand for progression.

Men and women are different so lets not pretend otherwise. There is an overriding natural instinct amongst women to mother and it is an instinct which wins out time and time again against the demand from employers. It is fortunate for men that for them, there doesn't exist, at least not on the same levels and not for most men, the same burning desire to stay with their children. That is not to say that all men would rather be at work than with their child but that in circumstances where a couple is faced with the decision that either the mother or father has to work, it will frequently be the mother's preference to stay at home and that desire will be stronger for a woman than a man. I accept there are exceptions but those that argue they are anything more are deluded.

This means that men are at an advantage in the workplace. Their employment is usually unbroken with long spells of leave, they are available for overtime at short notice and have a degree of flexibility should they need to travel, entertain or attend out of hours meetings. I know this is a generalisation, but it's very very hard to get to the top without providing your employer with those 'qualities'. Whilst some may think politicians do very little, the reality is that, as with senior businesspeople, a senior politicians life is pretty much dominated by the job and it requires just as much sacrifice as in the business world.

So this isn't intentional sexism and the more intelligent and reasonable feminists know this and they advocate what I advocate: genuine, family friendly reform of working practices. A business that requires it's senior people to work more than 60 hours a week and make other such unreasonable demands is not a well run business, in spite of what the balance sheet may say. It is not well run because it is, without thinking, placing it's senior positions out of the reach of half of it's workforce: it's women. Amongst those women could be the best candidates and they will never be in with a chance because the sacrifices are too great and they shouldn't be.

Clearly, this isn't a plan of how to counter the problem but rather an expression of desire that the problem be addressed on the right terms. It's not so much a women's issue but a family one. It is in everyone's benefit for it be addressed.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Alliance in danger of believing their own hype

It is almost expected, when talking about politics in Northern Ireland, for people to say that they just want politicians and their parties to focus on important issues such as health, education, employment etc. This is usually followed by the well used mantra that the people have had enough of tribal politics and want a shared society. Such talk is prolific and, understandably, is music to the ears of the Alliance Party and why wouldn't it be? It fits their ideology perfectly and they offer that type of politics to the people more so than any of the other parties.

I however, don't buy a word of it.

Yes, there are clearly some who actually mean what they say and back it up by joining Alliance or voting for them, but as we can see, they are far outnumbered by those who feel that first and foremost they are Nationalists or Unionists. There are exceptions of course; there will be some who have carefully considered the individual policies put forward and voted accordingly but they are in the minority. The fact remains that when going to the polls, the majority of this country vote along Unionist or Nationalist lines and while Alliance ignore the evidence they will remain a small party.

No doubt, they have made some gains, but I fear they have overestimated just how much of those successes are down to Alliance and not other factors. Naomi Long's victory in East Belfast can be directly attributed to the Robinson's turmoil. I don't doubt Alliances claim that Naomi was popular in East Belfast or that she was an effective and well known MLA. These things didn't win her the seat, they just meant that she was the first choice for an anti Robinson protest vote.

David Ford is Justice Minister and that is indeed a great result for Alliance but again, it had little to do with any specific Alliance achievements; he was simply the only option that everyone could agree on because of the nature of the role. These two 'successes' have been, and will continue to be, portrayed as Alliance growing and providing a threat to the other parties but I think they are sorely misguided and after the election may have to concede that, for all the talk and all the hype, the electorate haven't fully bought into the Alliance message of society free from division.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

How can the public measure Value for Money from Councils?

One of the things that I always have a big problem with when it comes to public bodies is a distinct lack of publicly available information, in particular, performance information. Thanks to the Freedom of Information act, those who are so inclined can, if they know what they are looking for and how to ask for it, get information from public bodies and then use that data to help form their own opinion on just how well a particular body is doing.

I have never thought this good enough. As tax payers, the public are key stakeholders in publicly funded organisations and as such should be provided with clear, precise and accurate performance information at regular periods. We shouldn't have to ask for this info, it should just be produced automatically.

In big private businesses and I would imagine many smaller ones, most firms have a form of 'dashboard' reporting where each department, section, project etc would be responsible for providing a weekly/monthly snapshot of their performance against targets. Many people tend to think of performance purely in terms of finance - sales, profit, loss etc but in truth that is only a small aspect to overall performance measurement. It is just as important to measure response times, deadlines, complaints and other such factors which determine just how well things are going. Areas of concern are highlighted in red, well performing areas in green or other such indicators.

It sounds very simple because it is, but it's one of those little things that provide a great deal of easily digestible info from very little effort and it's not until they are used that people appreciate just how important it is to have them. If I was a councillor I would propose that council adopt this type of scheme with each department having an input into the 'dashboard'. I would also propose that the public are consulted as to what they feel should be measured and monitored. Once up and running, this would be published monthly online for the public to see, scrutinise and then ask questions of the council if they feel unhappy.

This wouldn't just serve the public, it would serve the council. Though this may be hard to believe, the majority of councillors are actually interested in serving the public as best they can but they too, are often hampered by either a lack of information readily available (they can request reports, but having to wait defeats the object) or by not being given the whole picture. In addition, when it comes to justifying their record in future, they will be able to point to the 'Dashboard' as evidence that they have been doing what they were asked.

Should Sinn Fein have done better?

If you look at the results from the General Election in Ireland in simple terms, then Sinn Fein did brilliantly. They trebled their representation and Gerry Adams topped the poll in Louth. It can't be seen as anything other than a great result. Or can it? I think there has been a lack of proper critical analysis of just how good a performance Sinn Fein provided. I would wager, however, that there within Sinn Fein there is a small group of people who have the sense to examine things carefully before getting too carried away with the champagne.

If you start to consider context, then the result becomes less impressive, at least in my opinion. Fianna Fail were always going to get hammered electorally in this election and so were the Greens. They were effectively non players. What was left were Labour, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the Independents. Sinn Fein were never going to beat Fine Gael and Labour, but this was an opportunity to beat Fianna Fail. While this election was indeed focused almost solely on the economy, people do not suspend deep rooted ideology easily and as the 'other' republican party offering a completely different economic agenda, why did Sinn Fein not beat Fianna Fail?

This was a fair result for Sinn Fein, but I would say that picking up Fianna Fail seats in the election should have been like shooting fish in a barrel for the Shinners if, as they say, votes for Sinn Fein were endorsement and not protest. When up against such weak opposition, the result is more one of meeting expectations than exceeding them.

I don't buy that this was a massive endorsement of Sinn Fein and nor do I believe that those voters who turned to Sinn Fein will necessarily stay the course and give them their backing by default next time. However, Sinn Fein now have the chance to consolidate and demonstrate that whether the electorate gave them their vote in protest or endorsement, they were right to do so.

I picture this result as more of a relief for Sinn Fein than a great victory in the same way that Alex Ferguson is relived when Man United beat a non league team in the FA Cup; victory is expected and anything less is disastrous.

Do we need more Christians in Politics?

On BBC Spotlight last night, the Environment Minister Edwin Poots, asserted that he believed more Christians need to get involved with politics. The minister was responding to a question from the audience which asked whether Christians were being unfairly persecuted by legislation, in particular the recent decision to reject a Christian couple from fostering a child because of their strong belief that homosexuality is a sin and something that needs to be cured.

Mr Poots said that he believed Christians were being persecuted and being denied the right to practice their faith by, what he termed; 'silly liberal laws'. The minister apparently believes that the only way to address this perceived persecution is for more Christians to be involved in the decision making process.  One can fairly assume from this that Mr Poots feels that Christians are currently under represented in Politics.

Well, I disagree. For one, his party's MLA's, MP's and candidates for Assembly in May have or will at some point made reference to their Christianity, their church or even their Orange order membership. The UUP are not quite as big on pointing out their Christian credentials but they're not far behind. On the other side the fence, separation of church and state is more evident but there is still no shortage of Christians. That is how it should be, Mr Poots, not your way. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian but there is everything wrong with trying to impress your religious beliefs on others and it is abominable to do it through legislation.

Dawn Purvis provided an excellent answer to this question when she said that the freedom to practice religion must not prove detrimental to the rights of others. The couple who were denied the opportunity to foster were not, at any point, denied their right to practice their faith. What they were denied was the opportunity to push their faith on someone else, in particular, an impressionable child. This isn't a silly liberal law, this is protecting the rights of those who need the most protection.

On a final note, for Edwin Poots to moan about state interference is quite simply laughable. Almost to a man, his party opposes relaxation of Sunday Trading laws. Apparently, it's fine for the state to interfere when it's about keeping Sunday free for church.