Monday, April 09, 2007

Waiting (and waiting) won't bring about change
April 6, 2007

The thing with government reports is that I very often agree with them, sometimes even wholeheartedly.
I’ve seen my share of reports in 25 years of journalism, a lot of them bang on. Royal commission reports are particularly insightful, their authors having put serious time into studying every facet of the problem at hand.
But the unfortunate truth of reports and royal commissions is that we tend to ignore them. We send our best fact-finders out on noble missions of getting to the root of what ails us, then leave their recommendations to gather dust.
Sure, there’s a flurry of interest when a report first comes out, and a genuine intent to follow through. Within a year, however, we’re already losing interest; at the two-year mark, most of us will have forgotten that there ever was a report, at least until some other report comes to the identical conclusions a decade or so later.
Aboriginals failing in school. Children in government care. A better life for people with mental illness. An improved health-care system. A better way to help our kids learn. I’d be hard-pressed to tally all the major Canadian studies I’ve seen come and go in the last couple of decades.
A lot of them were powerful calls for transformation. I sat nodding my head in emphatic agreement through page after page of reports like B.C.’s royal commissions on health and education, or the marvelous Tom Gove report on reforming the way we look after children in care.
Hardly surprising, I suppose. The way to solve a problem is to understand every facet of it, and that’s exactly what royal commissions and other big reports set out to do.
But why do we so rarely take their advice?
One of our primary problems is an inability to focus long enough on an issue to get the job done. Big issues take big solutions, not teeny-tiny strategies mapped out a year at a time.
We also let political parties hijack the public agenda. We end up talking about what the parties feel like talking about, which leaves us lurching from one disjointed strategy to another in the artificial four-year cycle created by our election process.
It’s a disastrous approach when it comes to complex problems requiring patience, support and vision to solve.
One moment, we’re inching closer to finally getting a grip on the ridiculous way we deal with addiction. The next, Vancouver’s safe-injection site is being threatened with closure and Victoria’s main needle exchange is being run out of town.
One day, we’re wiping away tears over some poor little sod killed while in government care. The next, it’s 10 anguished years later and we’re still crying.
I wish I could tell myself I’m just aging into cynicism. But I’ve read the reports, and gone on to live in the brand new world that was supposedly going to result from them. And for the most part, not much changes.
Our national paralysis has us frozen up on some pretty frightening fronts.
By never following through on what our own reports and royal commissions have told us, we’ve actively created the kinds of deep-rooted problems that our country used to be proud not to have. We’re following countries like the U.S. into a mire of social problems and overflowing prisons, and class-based systems of care and schooling.
The worst of it is that we’re walking straight into it, undeterred by the living example of flawed social strategies unfolding in the country just south of us. Their reports have told them to do things differently as well, of course, for many years. But they haven’t, and it shows.
Even 20 years ago, could we have imagined a day when U.S. children would be walking through metal detectors to make sure they weren’t carrying guns? Or when poor, rural Midwesterners in states like Missouri and Iowa would be cited as one of the risk groups for high rates of crystal-methamphetamine use? Isn’t that enough to tell us there’s a high price to pay for getting this stuff wrong?
What it underlines for me is that change won’t come from the top down. Our governments may write a nice report, but the push has to start coming from the people if we ever want to see real change. Shuffling down to the polling booth once every four years just isn’t going to do it.
Where to start?
Pick an issue that’s really bugging you, and go learn something new about it. Track down the series of reports that were almost certainly written about it, and figure out a way to act on whatever part of the solution is within your grasp. Like the late Jerry Garcia tried to tell us, we’ve got to do more than just grumble that “somebody ought to do something about that.”
Sure, they ought to. But they aren’t. So it’s going to have to be us.

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