What was 2013 about?

What did Socrates say about blogging; “The unblogged life is not worth living,” or, “The unexamined blog is not worth blogging?”

I think the latter. Blogs can be revelatory. But revelatory of what?

So, I asked myself what the NetGain blog was about in 2013.  As a prime contributor, this is a way asking what I’m about.

The quick answer is that, in 2013, the blog was primarily concerned with politics and government, and secondarily with economics and strategy.

This was surprising in a way, given our history in cultural management, policy, and programs.  Yet it was a perfectly logical extension of our work in culture.  Our practice has evolved from the specific problems of separate cultural organizations to consideration of cultural industries as economic drivers and the government policies or programs that affect them.

In 2011-12, we’d been working in the grey area between cultural and economic development on projects like a business plan for an Artscape development project and on a review of Toronto’s business incubation programs. In 2013, it was a small shift from that to an interest in public procurement practices and the dampening effect of international trade agreements on city efforts to hatch new companies. Chairing a high-level film financing panel at the ReelWorld Festival awoke a deep interest in the troubled industry of independent Canadian screen content producers. The skilled labour shortages being addressed by a college client also drew us into a broader economic focus.

Still, that only brings us from culture into economics. It doesn’t explain why politics was such a persistent theme over the 57 posts and 85,000 words we generated last year.

So, to write about our work in culture, we couldn’t escape comment on economic impacts. Nor when we write about economic development can we avoid reference to government. Then, when we comment on government we slide into a political discussion because government and politics have become inseparable.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think we should be able to talk about the performance of government without constant reference to politics. They are related but distinct fields of endeavour that unavoidably intersect at election time.

Politics is the necessary evil we endure every few years to determine who should govern. Once all the name calling and vote counting is finished, elected officials should leave politicking aside for a few years. The day they’re sworn into office, they’re no longer in the business of chasing votes. They’re being paid to govern, according to an agenda they set during the election campaign.

I’m not off on a tangent here.  This is an underlying theme of the 2013 blog. Nor am I being naive when insisting that partisan politics are a legitimate mechanism for choosing governments but not for governing. When elected officials are confused about this, governments perform very poorly.

It only sounds naive to point this out because we’ve become inured to the confusion. But what’s really naive is the belief that anyone can act accountably for the public good while obsessively focused on the next election. Political insiders understand everything in terms of winning and losing, while giving scarcely a thought to the damage they wreak on public institutions.  The instruments of government – policies, programs, structures, and systems – don’t function well when put to partisan purposes.

This is the corner I blogged myself into last year.  More and more often I find myself writing about the misguided political impulses behind government decisions and the cumulative damage that results.  That’s why the casino issue incensed me and why the Scarborough subway decision seemed so harmful.  They revealed contempt for the principles and processes of government, further weakening public trust and voter engagement.

Canada Post’s new corporate strategy struck me the same way for different reasons.  Our mail service, like our passenger rail service and a dozen other responsibilities of government, has fallen victim to short term political thinking.  It has been broken since being spun off into the netherworld of crown corporations, mandated to adopt business principles in the service of a public mandate.  The latest strategy is merely a new way of failing at arm’s length from governments that disavow responsibility for either saving the service or reducing the cost.

Pick your scandal, and you’ll often find one of these crown corporations acting all 'businessy', despite being populated at the executive level by political appointees.  In Ontario, OLG, OPG, and Hydro One have all made recent headlines for payroll and pension excesses.  Not only are these hybrid corporations whipsawed between public mandates and private means, they’re starved for talent and expertise at the level where strategy is developed.  How else do you explain a national mail delivery service that cancels mail delivery as a cost saving measure?

There is no continuity to the life of a politician, so they cannot be expected to take the long view of things when it comes to strategic investments in public services.  Career civil servants generally don’t, or shouldn’t, fear for their jobs every four years.  It is the steady hand of bureaucrats, not politicians, that operates the machinery of government through rough domestic politics and stormy international affairs.  Politically disrupted government keeps us on a bumpy flight with the certainty of turbulence ahead and little faith in our pilots.

It’s easy to blame neocons for this state of affairs because they’ve taken a healthy skepticism about government and turned it into a crusade.  When we elect people, who believe that government is the problem, we shouldn’t be surprised to find public institutions reduced to rubble.

However, conservatives haven’t been in power long enough to take full credit for the damage.  Historically the centre is guiltier than the left or right because that’s where power lay during decades of ballooning public debt.  That’s a gross generalization of course, but we can all agree on the outcome.  There is a deficit for everyone to lament, regardless of political stripe.  We owe money, we have an infrastructure backlog, we have a skilled labour shortage, we have an environmental deficit, we have a social equity gap, huge wealth disparities, and a whole generation of young people waiting longer and longer for full entry into the workforce.

Political opponents don’t debate about competing visions at election time anymore, they offer a competing range of coping strategies.  The economy and the environment are depicted as opposed interests, for example.  Canadians are asked to choose one over the other, or to address both by half measures.  Previous generations are pitted against those that follow with platforms and policies that favour politically engaged and entitled boomers, to the detriment of disenfranchised youth and minority groups.  Instead of wise, fair, and enduring decisions, government is reduced to electioneering from the seats of the legislature.

When government serves at the pleasure of politics, unity ceases to have value.  Reduced to the blood sport of politics, compromise becomes an unworthy goal.  As the neocons would have it, “public service,” seems like a contradiction of terms.

As bad as it sounds, this is no cause for despair.  Good people continue to work through resilient structures, systems, policies, and programs, despite the messy imposition of politics on every aspect of government.  So, I hope people can forgive the strident tone I’ve taken about the trends I’ve observed.  All the same, broad discussion of cultural development leads naturally to discussion of industry and economy, to government, and regrettably, to politics.

Regardless of what I thought, our readers voted with their eyeballs.  Visitor statistics generally showed that there was more interest in strategy and economics than in politics and government.  Across the full range of issues, from Bixi bikes to the Comprehensive European Trade Agreement, and from the belligerence of liquor store workers to the skullduggery of political operatives, our posts about strategy and economics tended to get slightly more readers to spend slightly more time with NetGain than did more overtly political posts.

The political posts were nice and sticky however, which meant more people spent more time than they really intended, reading content they hadn’t sought.  Entertained by a diatribe about leadership or ethics, readers often jumped around the NetGain site to learn more about us or to see how we treated other topics of interest.

The political rants tended to draw government attention too.  Some topics received dozens of visits from relevant offices and agencies.  We identified them by their domain and server names.  Non-government organizations and some corporations lurked around the site as well.  Visits from public relations firms told us we had struck a nerve from time to time.

The top post for 2013 was about Toronto City Councillors who let expedience trump ethics in the wide shadow of Mayor Rob Ford.  This was an exception, given that it was almost solely concerned with politics and government.

The second most popular post proved the rule.  It was about a diversification strategy for the economy of an agricultural region where a large food processing plant had closed.  Written a month later, “When the Ketchup Runs Out,” will  soon take over top spot from “A Muddy Affair.”

Other popular posts included Genevieve Tran’s perspectives on the intersection between municipal procurement policies, and international trade agreements.  Together they attracted enough visitors to put them among the top three posts, and they too will continue to attract visitors as this topic gains public attention in the year ahead.

Our seven posts about the Toronto casino debate drew plenty of attention from interested parties, but none of them reached the top 10 in terms of general popularity.  Although they argued against the use of casinos for economic development, they identified culprits in public office and impugned the motives of casino advocates.

There’s a lesson to be learned from that.  At the time I remember thinking that the economics of the casino debate were more compelling to me than to our readers.  My attempts to dramatize the debate and isolate the casino proponents weren’t as helpful as I’d hoped.  I know that our blog brought focus to the arguments of others, but it might have been more effective to focus more narrowly on the flawed economics than on the politics behind the casino proposal.

Return visitors indulged me in the fun I had with Rob Ford.  We saw the comedic possibilities long before Stewart and Colbert exploited his misdeeds on late night television.  Unfortunately, our sense of outrage was surpassed by the actual outrage of his conduct.  We tried hard, but every effort to defame him fell short.

Two posts from the previous year had enough staying power to appear in the 2013 top 10.  It’s revealing that neither of them had anything to do with politics.  One was about the scale of high rise energy retrofits as a potential source of new business in Toronto, and the other was about the problems encountered by the Toronto Zoo when it deviated from the general strategy we developed with them years ago.

Economics and strategy are simply more appealing to more of our visitors than ruminations about politics and government.  They’re not mutually exclusive.  It’s a matter of priority and emphasis.  It’s something to remember in the year ahead.

After all this analysis, I feel like I know what we were blogging about and why. Yet I have no adequate response to the question, “What does NetGain do?”  Nor, having seen the perambulations of the past, do I have a clear sense of what lies ahead.

A few years ago, Robin Uchida pushed me to accept the new “NET+GAIN” logo.  Honestly, it bothered and confused me, which may have been his purpose.  But having seen what has transpired since, on a web-site he designed around our blog, that simple equation has grown in length and complexity.  With culture and industry as co-factors in economic development, and with government policy straining against the drag coefficient of politics, the critical constant in the NetGain formula is strategy.


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