Talk Politics: Honouring Bruce Doern

Last weekend, I participated in an extraordinary academic gathering in Ottawa, a conference to honour Carleton University public administration professor Bruce Doern on his retirement. In his prolific writings, he has developed what could be referred to in brief as the 5i theory of public policy, namely interplay among institutions, interests, ideas, and individuals. Doern was also recognized as a builder, playing a key role in establishing Carleton University’s School of Public Administration and establishing the annual review How Ottawa Spends.

One of the topics discussed was policy instruments, and in this context Michael Prince examined the use of exhortation. Prince’s University of Victoria colleague David Good suggested a new annual review: How Ottawa Talks. Picking up the point, a participant from the federal government’s Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions described the federal government’s response to the credit crisis as mainly talk and messaging. This is not intended as criticism, but rather a recognition that Canada’s major financial institutions are in much better shape than those in the US and Europe.

Continuing this line of thought, here are three propositions about Talk Politics.
First, the Internet has become the agora, the meeting place, where a great deal of talk politics happens. While governments have access to the mainstream media (e.g. press conferences) their press releases and documents are all, in the first instance, posted on line. For civil society, particularly individuals, participating in talk politics the Internet is the place because it is accessible and inexpensive, and has the possibility of getting responses.

Second, there are many different kinds of political talk. Governments particularly use the “you do the math” approach, appeals to financial self-interest, often accompanied by online calculators. Examples would be tax cuts or energy conservation programs. There may also appeal to voters’ interest in future generations, the world our children will inherit. I’m surprised that governments don’t use this approach more often, given their acknowledged role as representative of the interests of future generations. Individuals’ political talk is often sending an emotional message (Will I Am’s “Yes we can”) or a satirical one (Michel Rivard’s “culture en peril” or Sarah Silverman’s “great schlep”).

The third proposition is that if political talk is just talk it fails, because talk is intended to lead to people taking action. The action might be voting one way or another. Or in the case of public sector messaging about financial institutions, the intention is to discourage investors from panicking in ways that strain the financial system.

Yes, this is an area ripe for research, and one of the real payoffs of this conference would be if it leads to more thinking about this unexplored side of public administration.

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