Behind the curtains at Queen’s Park is a small army of political staffers who are currently in limbo.
Politics is much like a movie - what you see on camera or in the headlines is but a fraction of what goes on behind the scenes. Politicians are supported by countless volunteers, stakeholders and of course, political staff. While there is no one way into jobs in a Minister or Member's office (nor really any training once you get there), few positions you can have are more rewarding, draining, inspiring and all-to-often thankless than working in those back offices.
In addition to the challenges of doing The People's business, the Party's business and ideally, learning and contributing some of your own content in support of a shared vision, there's the constant uncertainty of employment (or perhaps, certainty of eventual unemployment). So much of your job stability is dependent on factors completely removed from your actual performance; as Ministers get shuffled or Parties go in or out of favour, some positions simply vanish.
With so many A-type personalities in politics, personality conflicts play a role, too - if you're associated with someone (or conversely, not seen as "one of XX's people") you can easily be painted with the same broad brush as a current or even former political boss or seen as inconsequential for not having the right connections. Knowing which position to favour or not favour, or which of several competing direction-givers to follow can lead to analysis paralysis, which then actually does impede performance.
A sad consequence of this uncertainty is that some of the folk on the employer side of the equation are often in places where they simply can't keep the team together. The cognitive dissonance that comes from having to let good people go sometimes results in a confabulated, comforting stance of "they were never that valuable anyway" being assumed by those holding the hammer. These sorts of sticky situations result in a lot of bitter feelings, well expressed by Warren Kinsella's farewell tribute to Dalton McGuinty's outgoing staff.
In a recent conversation with a friend who worked on Team Pupatello, I mentioned that those who would be out of work were in for a rude awakening. As this comment was first interpreted as meaning "those people have never had it so easy" I clarified thusly - the dedication, multi-tasking and ridiculously long hours worked in support of a cause, not a profit, doesn't translate as easily as one might hope to the private sector. Figuring out how to frame your skills, experience and connections into a tight package that makes it clear what value you can add to a firm is far from intuitive. Given the tightening restrictions around government relations, all the easy avenues are gone. With a tipsy economy and an expanding pool of available labour, employers are defaulting to what (and who) they know instead of seeking to expand their operations or offerings in out-of-the-box ways.
The stress of the uncertainty, the loss of income and sudden inability to manage existing responsibilities, the mounting challenges and steadily increasing pressure in finding something new and the gradual loss of both financial resources and personal confidence can take a heavy, heavy toll. These pressures can manifest themselves through things like anxiety, depression, substance abuse and damaged personal relationships. It's not a pretty picture.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
When the Liberals were returned to Queen's Park with a minority government in 2011, it was an unfortunate reality that staffing levels would have to contract, significantly. How to handle this situation in an appropriate manner became a topic of discussion among some of "The Centre" folk. Although I've never been on anyone's insider list, I've been in politics long enough to know some of those who are; while talking with one such staffer at a reception, I volunteered to create a staff transition strategy that would help The Centre train and point outgoing staff in useful directions. This offer was accepted.
To me, Liberals aren't about throwing people into the deep end or buying them oodles of flotation devices - it's about teaching them to swim with the tools and training that makes the most sense for them and their context. This "teach a man to fish" model became the basis of my plan; the opportunity presented by the election, I felt, was to put into practice the values that bind Liberals together. Of course, in addition to helping political family members leave the nest under their own wing power, supporting staff who end up being tomorrow's stakeholders makes strategic sense. Plus, it's an inevitability that your turn will come; we all know how karma works.
I called my staff transition strategy Moving Forward Together, with the implication being that moving forward together means leaving no one behind.
You can find it here.
For my part, I consider many of the people who now face employment uncertainty friends. I get that there was some polarization that happened over the leadership, just as their was friction when the number of chairs on the deck were reduced in 2011. That shouldn't matter - we are either all in this together, or we're not.
There are ways to help the team find success that won't break the bank; they just take time, commitment and active communication. You also have to care enough to invest yourself in the process. But the same applies to governing, doesn't it? If we don't believe we have what it takes to nurture and accomodate people with the tools they need to succeed, then we're in the wrong business, or maybe the wrong Party.
Move Forward Together - it can't be just a tagline, it has to be a value statement, a mission.
But we have to believe it's possible for us to make a difference. Not them, not you - us.
So - do we?