Reflections on the career of Rod Dobell, on the occasion of the west-coast launch of “A Subtle Balance”

Parson, Edward A. (ed.). 2015.  A Subtle Balance: Expertise, Evidence, and Democracy in Policy Policy Governance, 1970-2010. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Rod Dobell

Rod Dobell at the west coast book launch of A Subtle Balance

(Video of these remarks is available at https://vimeo.com/135290196 . I’m introduced here by Ted Parson, the editor of the book).

I first started working for Rod in about 1972.

That was a joke.

It’s a joke that my wife doesn’t really find all that funny, but a joke nonetheless.

But in the intervening many years, I learned more from him than I can remember, completed a PhD in public administration under his guidance (though, truth be told, he probably still doesn’t quite think I’m ready to defend and that there really are a few more interesting questions to investigate), and it’s my honour to continue to collaborate with him.

And what seems obvious to me, and I hope I can impress upon you, is how much of his insight, thinking, and guidance has influenced my current thinking about open governance.

And excuse me if I subconsciously oscillate between open government and open governance. I should know better as I think the distinction is crucial, hinging on the distinction between openness within government institutions to computer-supported internal knowledge flows and collaboration, and openness as between the act of governing and those affected by that governing – again, especially using computer mediated interaction in the Internet era.

But while I study both open government and open governance, either and both succeed in raising eyebrows among the more sceptical, asking me essentially whether I’ve ever read the comment section in an online post.

I’ll just state clearly that judging our capacity for open governance based on our experience with primitive online commenting systems that frankly seem purpose built for allowing the lesser demons of our nature to shine through would be akin to judging the safety of modern air travel based on pre-Wright brothers failures to achieve sustained flight. Yes, we have a long way to go, and we definitely need to get better at the systems we use for facilitating open governance. But this is where the work that Rod and Jodie Walsh and I did in conjunction with Oceans Networks Canada to enable science oriented crowdsourcing through the Digital Fishers platform is really instructive to me on what the future of open governance might look like.

Still, there is a lot of scepticism around the concept of open governance. Look, I have four idiot brothers – I have four favourite sisters as well, which probably tells you more about my parents than me – but I have four idiot brothers who when I try to explain that, for both reasons of democratic legitimacy AND policy effectiveness, we need to expand and improve the scope and scale of people involved in policy making and governance – they give me that look that only an idiot brother can give. (And I should clarify that I not only suspect, but am certain, that all four of them refer to their “four idiot brothers” – and as the one brother that they all think doesn’t actually work for a living, they reserve a special place for me in that panoply).

But take for example my brother the politician, working at the coalface of small town public management. His is a world where “you have to understand, I deal with these people every day, and most people aren’t smart enough to be trusted with important decisions.” Now, I have never been so impolite as to ask him to extend that logic to the process by which he was elected, to contemplate what it means that people who can’t be trusted to make decisions elected him.

But I am of course being unfair (because he’s my idiot brother). Because some of my colleagues in the open governance movement speak in code phrases that essentially say the same thing: phrases such as, “crowdsourcing wisely, not widely” and “open governance to improve people’s lives”. They too have read the comment section and I really get the impression that they think that open governance is ok as long as it’s open to the right people. Which is really just another type of closed governance.

So how about it? Do we believe in open governance in practice as well as principle, or is it like that old joke: “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” This is how I interpret one of the underlying themes or tensions in the book that Ted has pointed to; the question of to what degree people can be trusted to be involved in this governance, and can that involvement be helpful.

So let me conclude with Rod’s influence on my thinking about open governance. A former student colleague from way back whose name is now lost to me once said of Rod: “I rarely understand what he’s talking about. But he always knows what I’m talking about. Even when I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Which illustrates and points to what I’ve called Rod’s “generous intellect”. It was always remarkable how welcoming Rod is to discussing ideas with students, to considering new ways of thinking about things, to take the time to consider various perspectives, and to allow those who weren’t quite moving at the same speed of thought as him to enter the conversation as an equal. But the corollary to the above statement is that you will know what you’re talking about when you leave, it just might not be what you were thinking when you entered. As I advised Jodie when she started working with Rod and me: “never go into his office without a notepad and at least two pens.”

So thank you sir. Thank you for your generosity and your influence on my work, which has instilled in me a desire to bring that same type of generosity to the study of open governance, to believe that people are both capable and interested in being involved in things that matter.

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