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Rob Leone: Our leaders are groping along on COVID-19. There may not be a better way

Commentary

At some point soon, there will be a reckoning of all that has transpired with government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The temperature and mood of the public gets captured in polling on an ongoing basis and public support for political leaders appears to be running short as the pandemic drags on day by day. The vitriol that we see on social media and the overconfidence of some medical experts are making a mess of citizens trying to understand where we need to go and how to get there.

In the midst of this, some other academics — ones who study government, for example — are trying to figure out where the fault lines lay and how we might be governed better beyond the daily grind of watching as our political leaders are seemingly failing us.

The first hot take is this: our political leaders might be failing us, but they aren’t doing so intentionally. Everyone will have their opinions about whether we could have done more or might have done something different, but all the decisions made by governments, as well as all sorts of organizations that have to deal with COVID-19, have been taken with painstaking care and hours of deliberation.

In fact, the truth of the matter is that public opinion and academic opinion on what to do are not unanimous. When they are split, the level of consensus on decision making is miniscule. There will only be a small fraction of the decision area where all sides align. Everything else is up for debate.

In zone five, all stakeholders agree, making it an easy decision for government. In zone three and four, there is broad, but not unanimous, agreement among stakeholders, meaning government will decide which direction to take knowing it won’t satisfy everyone. A few ideas in zone one and two will be implemented, but most will not.

Take this Venn diagram of decision making. Here, we have five distinct groups of roughly equal size in the decision-making arena. Intersecting the circles shows the area of consensus. The number five denotes areas where all five groups agree, whereas the number four shows areas where four groups agree but one does not, and so on. This diagram serves to illustrate the point that when one group of experts, say the medical community, are advocating for things in which only they agree, it becomes a source of consternation for government because the four other groups aren’t on board.

But, the crazy thing about social media is we elevate those MDs and data scientists to a level where their opinions, because they are experts, are taken as sacrosanct. However, reality is different. There are other influential people talking to government who are experts in their own right: economists, workers, employers, and more. Whether one cares to listen to these ideas is not as relevant as the fact that governments obviously do. To do only what a narrow group of medical experts want would invalidate the pluralism of expertise that actually exists.

We will leave it up to the commentariat to determine whether a government should in fact be listening to one group over the other, but an objective viewpoint cannot help but understand that many different people and groups are feeding into the government decision-making process.

The important point to take away from this Venn diagram is to understand that governments are pulled in different directions. Governments know that they have to quash the COVID-19 virus, but they do not know the best way of getting there.

Lo and behold, there is actually a decision-making theory that explains this predicament. Robert Behn calls it the “groping along” model, which is also known as a form of management by experimentation. According to the theory, a leader who “gropes along” is not an incompetent decision-maker. Rather, the decision-maker knows what to do, but there isn’t a precise path on how to get to the goal. It suggests that, at any given moment, the manager has several decisions that could be taken to change the organization.

A decision-maker may be able to get closer to his or her desired end through a particular decision, but sometimes will be further from that end because of the negative experiences encountered along the way. When the decision-maker realizes this situation by analyzing the organization’s environment, other steps will be attempted to get back toward the desired goal. This is how “groping along” works. The decision-maker knows where he or she wants to go, but might get lost along the way.

Put it in a different way, if a leader encounters a problem, he or she attempts to fix the problem. And, while the intent of fixing the problem is sincere, the outcome of the decision may have misfired. Sometimes, those decisions helped move the organization closer to the goal and sometimes they move them further away from it.

Now, if we go back to that Venn diagram where many different experts are providing compelling and often diverging advice, it sets up the perfect circumstance for a leader to “grope along.” When one approach fails, a leader has to start fresh and make another decision. When a different approach leaves other influential groups feeling unheard, the government tries to take into account those concerns in order to demonstrate that it is, in fact, listening to the pluralistic expert opinion that is present.

Straying from the initial course to listen to affected groups and their advice may be seen as “not learning” from what worked and what didn’t work in previous waves, but it should be seen as experimenting with other approaches, which are invariably also backed by evidence, to determine whether they might work better.

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford apologized for getting it wrong, he laid bare what was plainly obvious. He got it wrong and he failed.

And, after 14 months of refusing to impose a serious restriction on international travel, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government finally got around to doing some of it. Again, some approaches were tried with success. Others were tried and failed. Opponents clamour at the seeming incompetence and governments claim to be acting in good faith and for the health and wellbeing of people. Here’s the thing about that juxtaposition: it’s possible that they’re both right.

While the calls for resignation for our political leaders are present, here’s another solemn truth: It doesn’t matter who is in charge, those new decision-makers would be experimenting as they go along. The reason is that there is no playbook for dealing with the pandemic. Sure, the Conservative Party of Canada might have shut down international travel sooner, but they probably wouldn’t have been as quick on the income supports earlier on. It is possible that the NDP in Ontario might have enacted sick pay (or never gotten rid of it to begin with), but they probably would have been reluctant to enact executive orders to break collective agreements that allowed workers to be moved into sectors hard hit by COVID-19. We might praise somebody else for doing something different we like, but loathe them for entirely other reasons.

That’s what managing by groping along brings and after 14 months of dealing with the pandemic that seems to never want to end, it is entirely expected that we are fed up.

This pandemic has brought about government decisions amid a sea of potential alternatives. Without solid direction on how to get to where we all want to be — a Canada that is free from COVID-19 — our leaders try to navigate uncharted territory without a compass. They are bound to make mistakes, and, unfortunately, mistakes in a pandemic can be a matter of life or death.

To borrow a phrase from Trudeau, “better is always possible.” Unfortunately, it’s also true that worse is also possible.

Caroline Elliott: Defending individualism and objectivity from Global Affairs

Commentary

There’s no question that racism and white supremacy are atrocious realities faced by racially marginalized populations in Canada today. We need to do more as individuals and as a society to condemn and combat these injustices, and we need to make sure we do it right.

Doing it right includes identifying and addressing aspects of our institutions that serve to perpetuate racism, while preserving those that offer protection against it.

Unfortunately, documents used by Global Affairs Canada as part of anti-racism training (recently highlighted by Tristin Hopper in the National Post) show that the federal government seems to be getting it wrong in deeply concerning ways.

The government’s materials identify certain commonly-held principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” including individualism, objectivity and the “worship of the written word.”

Far from being tools of racism, these values are typically more consistent with shielding minorities from racism than they are with subjecting them to it.

True, these issues are highly complex and oversimplification is inevitable in a column of this length. But that is precisely why the government’s fleeting yet denigrating treatment of these values is so troubling.

By identifying widely-accepted principles as “characteristics of white supremacy,” the government may inadvertently trivialize and even perpetuate the abhorrent reality of racism itself. Regular people’s very reasonable support of norms like individualism and objectivity might wrongly make them think that perhaps the horror of white supremacy is based on tenets they can relate to.

That would be a tragedy and it is why the government’s endorsement of this approach must be challenged.

It has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Let’s start with individualism.

Individualism holds that every person is an inherently worthy being who ought not to be used as a means for something (or someone) else’s ends. Each of us has as much right as any other to set out our life plan, to live freely, and to flourish without our interests being subordinated to other purposes. By placing a high value on personal freedom, individualism rejects uniformity and facilitates true diversity.

Individualism offers important protections to minorities in majoritarian political systems like ours. When we place all of our trust in majority-based decision-making, history has shown that the interests of minorities are the first to be set aside for the purposes of the greater number. John Stuart Mill called this “the tyranny of the majority.”

That’s why we have things like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and the Bill of Rights in the United States — because it has long been recognized that one of the best ways to protect minority interests is through individual rights.

Next up, objectivity.

Put simply, objectivity can be defined as freedom from bias in one’s judgements. It seems like quite a stretch to suggest that the malicious reality of white supremacy is served by the ideal of being free from bias in one’s judgements.

Admittedly, the idea of setting aside one’s prejudices to achieve impartiality is not always easy and often unsuccessful. But one would think that we ought to at least strive for it, whether it comes to our justice system, policing, journalism and much more.

As in the case of individualism, objectivity is especially important when it comes to protecting minority rights. For example, racial prejudice among the police and judiciary has frequently been highlighted as a problem by marginalized groups. As we work to address this, one would think objectivity gets us a whole lot closer to where we should be than subjectivity does.

Last but not least, it’s worth discussing the “worship of the written word.”

The written word includes, among other things, the very Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has been used time and again to protect minority rights. And in addition to being the format of choice for many of the world’s religious records, literary masterpieces and great philosophies, it also provides the legal embodiment of the rule of law, which (at least notionally) places all citizens equally before the courts.

Of course, the written word isn’t the only way of doing things. After all, much of our constitution is unwritten, and many Indigenous groups celebrate oral traditions. It’s also true that the written word doesn’t guarantee equal treatment in practice, but the concept is not something that is intrinsically evil.

What we risk losing sight of in all of this is the fact that racism is a very real and very urgent problem.

Despite what the government’s anti-racism materials suggest, though, there are aspects of our political and social foundations that are actually worth defending for the various roles they can and do play in protecting minorities. That includes individualism and objectivity, along with the respect we have for the written word.

Sure, these aren’t the only important values in our society. And it’s also true that in practice they don’t always work out as well as they do in theory.

At the end of the day, though, there’s no question that all three principles are things Canadians should be able to believe in without feeling complicit in something as repugnant as white supremacy. If anything, these values at least try to counter injustice and prejudice, and our country ought to be celebrating them, not vilifying them.

We’re at a critical juncture where racism is finally being recognized as the problem it is, and we can’t allow our government to malign the very aspects of our institutions that arm us in our fight against it.