Friday, September 17, 2010

Why some of our biggest problems just drag on (and on)

My late father took to calling me “Little Miss Know-It-All” once I became a columnist. My mother still teases me about it.
It’s a funny thing, being an opinion writer. You have to be out there with something to say - otherwise, what’s the point? It seems I’m always weighing in on one thing or another, and never mind that I might not have known the first thing about the subject prior to that. 
I wish I really did know it all, because wouldn’t that just be the coolest thing? But what journalists are good at is identifying problems. That doesn’t mean we know how to solve them.
Still, you learn a lot after years of writing about problems.  The upside of journalism is getting to see big thinkers working together with the information, insight and team skills needed to solve a problem. The downside is realizing how often we get stuck, and how the ruts in the road just keep on getting deeper in the places where we’ve spun our wheels a hundred times before.
Every positive change - gay rights, fewer motor-vehicle deaths, lower dropout rates, higher birth weights, environmental protection, equality for women, on and on - came about because people who knew their stuff simply got to it and figured things out. We’re impressive problem-solvers when we want to be.
Yet other problems linger on. Why? In my opinion, it usually comes down to a lack of honesty within the process and conflicting interests. We talk about our commitment to the issue at hand, but not about the hidden agendas and politically influenced decision-making that derails any problem-solving process.
We do not badly in the first stage of problem-solving, where we’re gathering information. Think of all those fabulous reports that have come out of the many royal commissions, task forces and inquiries we’ve created to help us with stubborn, complex issues.
But so many of those recommendations never make it off the shelf. We appear genuine in our search for answers, but rarely are.
I was part of a corporate process years ago in which complex problems got addressed by bringing anyone with a piece of the issue into the same room to figure things out as a group. It’s amazing how quickly a problem can be resolved when everybody puts aside their own self-interest and works for the greater good.
But there’s the sticking point. If anybody is there for the wrong reason, or less than honest about adopting the solutions that emerge from the process, it all goes wrong pretty quickly. You need to be willing to compromise your own interests to solve a problem, and honest in talking about the challenges. Change can’t happen otherwise.
An example: We can’t possibly solve the problem of people with mental illness falling into homelessness until those with the power and the funding base to change that are honest about the level of service needed and the fact that we’re not even close to having enough.
We can’t wish everybody off our streets while at the same time slowing the building of subsidized housing across Canada to a trickle and gentrifying every neighbourhood to suit the middle-class.
We can’t address the crisis in our health, social and justice systems caused by drug addiction without acknowledging that we’ve stripped down services so aggressively in the last decade that treatment these days is readily available only if you’ve got  money to buy private care at $10,000-plus a month.
We can’t address the needs of the 35,000 British Columbians who live with mental handicaps while cutting and capping vital supports that were never generous in the first place. We can’t feel good about expanding disability services to include people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder while at the same time cutting overall funding so that everybody will receive less help.
We can’t help people with brain injuries by scrapping a community program that used to help them make the transition from hospital to home, as we did two years ago. That not only exacerbated problems for that group, it complicated potential solutions around homelessness: Brain injury is a fact of life for more than half of the people living on our streets, and the reason why many are homeless in the first place.
We’ll solve our tough problems when we’re honest about them, and cognizant of the political spin and self-interest that undermines the process. 
I’d like to say the day is soon coming. But Little Miss Know-It-All isn’t at all sure about that.

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