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

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