Making Meaning from Middle Ground - My View

It's the beginning of a new year and a new decade and for many of us, a time to also re-assess. In a recent conversation with a Council colleague from another municipality, we talked about our Council work and took some time to reflect on what it means to each of us. At the end of our discussion, my colleague asked the inevitable questions, "Do you find this work meaningful and do you think you make a positive difference?" I hesitated for a moment, thinking to myself that the work has meaning for me but perhaps not for others and, if I do feel I make a positive difference that probably depends on one's perspective. I shared these thoughts with my colleague who replied "Good answer and good luck."

These questions are ones that many of us ask ourselves from time to time. Whether it's about our personal or professional lives, about paid or volunteer work or about elected or appointed positions, we want to know that what we do has meaning for us and for those we serve and makes a difference to others. As a Municipal Councillor, I want to feel that I make a difference, no matter how small. I want to know that, somehow, what I do has shared meaning with my community and its residents. I also want to know that most of my decisions have positive results for others.

Working in a political environment, however, can make it more difficult to always identify positives and realize the meaning of the work. One can sometimes feel like the "meat in the sandwich," squeezed somewhere between the community, the bureaucracy and the politics; and, how tight this squeeze is usually depends on how high the stakes, how complex the issue, how responsive or reactive the community and on how the parties directly involved behave.

I have said before that I believe that the Council Chamber is where people and issues sometimes collide and wherever one happens to be standing at the time of the collision, defines the meaning for them. Put another way, depending on what side of the issue or decision you happen to be on generally defines the experience for you.

I think two other factors have a significant bearing on the meaning and outcome of this work -- sorting out the difference between the reality of what happened and the perception of what happened. If the decision is perceived as a "good" one, where the result is acceptable to all parties, then it's likely that the distance between reality and perception was relatively small. If the decision is perceived as a "poor" one, then it is likely that the distance between reality and perception was large, creating what I call an "understanding gap" between all the parties involved. Trying to find a way to bridge the middle distance between what is real and what is perceived (trying to reach middle ground or to close the gap) when you are dealing with a contentious issue, can be the greatest challenge facing decision-makers. But why?

Well, in my experience, there are often three sides to a situation or issue -- yours, mine and the truth (or facts). It's well researched that each of us sees a situation through our own "lens," hence the saying for the eternally optimistic, "seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses." Every one of us wears a pair of our own glasses that can blur or colour truth or reality based on previous experiences and beliefs. How we see the world around us may cause us to pre-judge, re-interpret or re-define a situation or issue, based on what we believe to be real or true. When someone says to me "Tell me the truth" I am tempted to reply, "But which truth do you want? Yours, mine or the truth?" Your experience and my experience can be totally distinct from one another, so that we each see a situation very differently.

When faced with an issue that requires a decision and a meaningful outcome, the challenge for the decision-maker, as I see it, is separating fact from fiction, getting to the heart of the issue, managing differences and making some sense out of everything. As an aside, when I hear the phrase "using common sense" I admit I have to chuckle. There is nothing "common" about common sense when making difficult decisions about people and issues -- people are complicated and unpredictable and the issues they present are often complex. No two people nor two issues are ever the same and I have learned the hard way that the only thing predictable about people is that they are not.

Specific to Council work, I believe a third factor also defines meaning for each party -- the inherent power and authority imbalance that exists between decision-makers and residents. In a quasi-judicial setting such as a Municipal Council, legislative power in British Columbia to make legal and binding decisions is vested with elected officials through the BC Elections Act, Local Government Act and Community Charter. It is accepted that decision-makers have "power over" others by virtue of their role and responsibilities; it is incumbent, therefore, on decision-makers to use his/her power and authority judiciously and to apply governing legislation, bylaws and policies to local government decision-making in a sensitive, respectful and thoughtful manner. In the case of municipal administration, while residents may not necessarily agree with the final staff or Council decision, it is vitally important to ensure that residents leave the Municipal Hall or Council Chamber feeling heard, understood and respected.

I believe that the recipe for making meaningful decisions that reflect fairness and balance seems to involve a real mix of ingredients -- the situation or context, dynamics, available information, individual perceptions, understanding, parties involved, history, behaviour, personal experiences, legislation and, last but not least, the politics. Then imagine the decision-making process as a kitchen blender, where all these ingredients are thrown together and whirled, tossed and blended to create from this incredible mix a certain "consistency." In the case of Council work, I strive for a "consistency" too, by making decisions that I believe reflect a "blend" of adequate public and staff information, administrative fairness and balance.

I remember once getting some helpful advice from a political mentor who explained the nub of Council work and how best to make meaning out of decision-making. She advised, "There will be many times when you will be trying to make ideal decisions from less than ideal circumstances, trying to find meaning from situations that may have none."

When reflecting on the real meaning of my Council work, it may well be found in how decisions are made rather than in the decisions themselves; regardless of the final decision or outcome, if you leave the North Saanich Council Chamber feeling heard, understood and respected, then for me, that may be the best meaning of all.