Impossible Conversations: Tragedy in the Commons

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A group of us started a Public Administration/Political Economy Book Club in March 2013, prompted by a tweet from George Wenzel.

The June discussion was fantastic. The last two months have added some sharp new voices to the group, and the most recent book, Tragedy in the Commons, by Samara founders Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, made for great fodder. The book is a dive into the (recent) state of Canada's parliament, based on interviews with former Members of Parliament, a demographic that allows for candid reflections.

We invite members to provide their reviews and reflections for posting here. Alison was kind enough to join us via Hangout to discuss the book when we met, and asked for suggestions for future editions, as well.

Thank you to Alison, and to everyone who takes part.

Nick Charney

Sequence matters; this book is a perfect complement to Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes and Savoie’s Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher. Taken together, these books provide great insight into the evolution of the political-bureaucratic interface in Canada. That said, I was taken aback by the fact that many of the interviewees saw themselves as the citizen’s solution to interfacing with the bureaucracy when things break down, choosing to cast themselves as ombudsman dealing with symptoms rather than legislators fixing systems. Unsurprisingly the book casts the ‘bureaucracy’ as amorphous and a part of the problem. To the best of my recollection none of the MPs questioned ever spoke of to the issue of the ongoing relationship between elected officials and the public servants that serve them or working with the civil service to achieve a particular end. It’s almost as though the relationship didn’t even register. I find it fascinating because of the amount of attention the relationship gets from the other side of the equation; bureaucrats, former bureaucrats and public admin academics (especially those in Ottawa) love to weigh in on the relationship (See: On The Trust Gap). I think it would be fascinating to conduct similar exit interviews with former civil servants and see how their answers stack up. My gut tells me we’d see an incredible gap in concerns, a gap that might be contributing to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Erin Gee

Freshly off Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes, I tried to guess (without much luck) whether or not any of the interviewees were playing the political marketing card. Tragedy in the Commons shed an interesting light into the world of politics, and despite the subject matter, remained accessible (so whether you’re a political junkie or not, you should read it). What struck me the most was the candour with which the interviewees spoke. They were (seemingly) incredibly forthright in their responses and I’m curious to see how future MP exit interviews may turn out.

Kent Aitken

Nick and Erin both mentioned the context of other books we've read. I'll second the value of reading these books together, and add the warning it may feel like a slight punch in the gut.

Where to even start? Alison asked for suggestions for improvements, and while any book could be improved, suggestions for Tragedy would be minor quibbles. They've done an excellent job, and published an engaging read out of powerful and unique source material. It's a worthwhile addition to the interim reports from the same interviews. My one concern would be that, given the qualitative nature of the research, those that disagree could dismiss the narrative as being a product of the authors' perspectives. Fortunately, many direct quotes from former MPs will hold much weight on their own.

TL;DR: I've probably thrown around the term "must read" in the past, but this absolutely is, for anyone interested in politics or public administration.

For reflections:

I was struck by the idea of MPs considering themselves "outsiders" to the heart of the process, and working for ways to make a difference. Many seemed torn between "playing the game" and delivering results for their ridings and the country. Since I wrote When Parameters Are The Problem I've been seriously debating where the balance is between fitting neatly within the system, and adhering to one's principles (at least, when the two are indeed in conflict). I just didn't realize that the conflict would apply to MPs, as well.

I was also intrigued at the lack of agreement on what an MP's job is in the first place: trustees of their riding, or delegates? There to echo voices or make decisions on their behalf? Simultaneously, should they be acting as ombudsmen for the bureaucracy to citizens, as Nick notes?

I finished this book over a month ago and it's still rolling around in my mind. When voters go shopping, pick this up.