The Problem is No Problem

Every time I hear the response “no problem” I worry. We have become known as a society where life is free and easy. Couple this “no problem” attitude with the notion that Trinidad & Tobago is a place where there is little planning, a short memory and lack of continuity and you spell disaster. Someone recently described our electoral process as an opportunity to start over the race rather than hand over the baton. I could not provide a counter argument when I reflected on the number of things we have started over without even a consideration for the human, economic or social cost. From 2009 to date, 3 different men have occupied the post of Commissioner of Police of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and with each of them a new approach to our biggest scourge.

In just over 3 months we changed an entire traffic system without putting it to its severest test, the opening of the school term. In a way, we don’t even know what were the lessons learned. We can’t really say what was successful or not successful about the plan. The entire system was just tossed out the window.

There’s a common thread between these two examples and that is the absence of citizen participation in important decisions. The days of autocratic decision making are over. It seems that as the level of complexity increases, there is a greater need for citizen engagement to solve our problems.

What would have happened if focus groups were held to hammer out solutions for the St. James traffic problem. Maybe we would have found out that we needed to put in pedestrian crossings at specific intervals or that the taxi route needed to cater for business clusters or that “reduce speed zones” should have been implemented. While it would be legitimate to make the accusation that all of this is the clarity of hindsight my point is that we continue to disregard the views of our citizens. Communication is not at the centre of our strategies. It is absent from the implementation plans.

When communication is included it is seen as a one way activity in which advertisements are placed in the media, mailers delivered in post boxes and pronouncements made by dignitaries. That is not communication, that is just an opportunity for some inept people to make quick money.

Communication requires and includes significant feedback from the target audience or the persons who will be impacted by your decision making. Today’s world of instant communication requires the deployment of a range of strategies to elicit feedback. People want to understand what is being done and how it will affect them. If we communicate our intentions openly more people will have an opportunity to respond and put their points of view up for consideration. Just as politicians go door to door to seek support at election time there are issues for which they must go house to house to canvass opinions.

This abandoned traffic plan has left a sour taste for everyone and the lessons need to be considered.

Some of the things I have learned are that leaders must understand their authority. If it was clearly understood that the change required legislative authority then, the timing should have spanned a period for the plan to be tested both during the vacation and when school is in session so that sufficient data would have been gathered.

Leaders must remember that the power of the people is paramount. Who were the opinion formers in this exercise and how could they have been engaged? Clearly some key opinion formers were not included and their views were strong enough to shut down the experiment.

Leaders must remember that in the world of social innovation, money is the currency with least value. While the officials had enough budget to replace signs, repaint roads and install traffic lights, the people on the ground had the power to halt the experiment. Social currency is the most valuable currency when it comes to social change.

What saddens me is that after 3 months of the population trying to learn a new system, listening to arguments for and against and significant investment, we don’t know what would have worked or what would not have worked.

Turning to the crime pandemic, it is clear that this problem will not be solved by increasing the spend. It is worrisome that the media reported that there was a spontaneous protest as a result of the alleged slaying of a young man by the police. Is this a variation of the “Dudus Coke” scenario which played out in Jamaica where the community was prepared to shelter a gangster?

It is a well substantiated theory that successful police work can only be accomplished by community involvement. Police rely on communities to get information. If the trust indicators for police continue to decline then the bandits will continue to win. The “Laventille” branded communities will not simply disappear nor will the gun toting bandits. There must be a plan for engaging the communities which host them. People must be engaged and encouraged to take back their communities. It is a false sense of security to feel that you can lock out the bandits behind burglar proofing and gated communities.

Maybe the most important indicator is that our leaders must by their actions communicate that a level playing field exists in the war against crime. There must be no suggestion that the law is being applied according to your proximity to the centre of power.

By Dennise Demming – Public Relations and Training Consultant

“Eat Ah Food” written in April 2010

This expression “eat ah food” has been haunting me since Carnival. At that time, it was the occasional reference and I kept musing over what it could possibly mean. Clarity came when a particular entertainer said he was not going “to create, perform or promote any “eat ah food” music; his music must have a message and make sense for the public”. His comments resonated with me because here was a young entertainer taking a stand and being prepared to live with the consequences. That was a “feel good” moment because it communicated that there is hope for Carnival music to move beyond the frenzied repetition of 2 syllables that occupy a space deep in one’s consciousness to maybe just a couple of sound sentences or statements. And so Carnival ended and the “Eat Ah Food” phrase was no clearer in its social implications.

I then happened across a small road side establishment with the same name. The proprietor explained that he provided a “nice little something” for his clients to eat.

With the advent of “silly season,” “Eat Ah Food” has found its moment in the sun. Popular conversation is about what people are prepared to do in order to “Eat Ah Food”. From advertising agencies and calypsonians to CEPEP workers and professionals, all seem to have identified their own “eat ah food” threshold.

On a very basic level, the concept is being interpreted as persons operating at Level One of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is protecting their ability to enjoy food, clothing and shelter. In that case, the issue of an informed opinion becomes a moot point since these opinions will be guided by a perceived relationship between the future outcomes and current choices. At other levels, citizens have historically been politically expedient and put their support where they felt there was the greatest possibility for reward. Some have even latched on to the phrase “enlightened self interest” to explain their choices.

At yet another level, the campaign financiers operate unbridled since there is no legislation to set the context of their operations. Additionally, the profession of “Lobbyist” has not been formalized. The impact is that whatever the outcome of “silly season” there are power brokers who will gather currency now and leverage it in the future.

For citizens not identified in these limiting categories, there is still the question of how can I make an informed decision? Is it possible to apply rational thinking to decision-making around politics? Yes, it is possible. Accept that decision making around our politics is emotionally driven but also accept that it could benefit from a more structured approach. There are four simple questions which can aide the decision making process: What is my risk here? Can I afford the outcome? What is the benefit to me of the expected outcome? Will I feel good about the outcomes and the decision I made to influence those outcomes?

The hundreds of thousands of persons who earn their living by being Ordinary Citizen John/Joan Singh (Citizen Singh) risk very little with the outcome of this election. In the short to medium term, life will continue and his/her vocation/profession will continue. There may be a name change here or there but the fundamentals will remain.

Can Citizen Singh afford the outcome? Very likely because the benefits we enjoy depend on the state of the economy. If we allocate the same corruption weighting to all parties, then economic factors will drive the development of the country.

Will Citizen Singh feel good about the outcome? That’s a really difficult one. My past experience with this question is interesting. Within five months of the NAR Government, I couldn’t find one person who had voted for NAR. Supporters seemed to have collectively disappeared from the landscape.

On balance, it is all about the allocation of scarce resources and how the economics affects the politics. In developed countries like the UK, the decision point is not about a T-shirt or a house or a job, but about the philosophical underpinnings and how those underpinnings impact the shared vision of the future. Political parties adopt a very measured approach to communicating their messages. The frenzy of politically charged junction meetings is absent. The communication job is more clinical and almost dispassionate.  There seems to be an understanding that life is about more than immediate satisfaction. Life indeed is about more than “Eat ah Food”.