Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ann Gerhart "The dry business of government, which is different from politics, has important real world impacts" at AK Press Club

Gerhart is an engaging speaker, warm and caring.  She's offered to help folks while she's here.  But for me, the stuff she's talking about is the stuff I know best.  I spent my professional career teaching public administration so when she says,
"The dry business of government, which is different from politics, has important real world impacts"
Ann Gerhart Washington Post
that's like the A, B, C's for me.  But it is important because it's not obvious to the public or to many reporters.  I've got extensive mental notes for posts I want to do on the idea of Government Isn't The
Enemy, Because There Is No Government.

That would branch off into:

  1. There are thousands of governments - from the federal government, to the state governments, to the local governments, and all sorts of water and road and other districts.  So there is no monolithic "Government."  And I've pointed out that when you lose your bags (or to be more current, when you're dragged off a plane) at United Airlines, you don't say, "Business is the enemy."  But people do say "Government is the enemy"  if they have a problem with any individual employee of any branch of government, rather than citing that specific agency.  
  2. That there's politics and there's government.  Politics are the people who write the laws and all they need to get their jobs is 50% of the vote.  That can happen to someone who has lots of experience and the best of intentions who runs a great campaign.  It can also happen to someone whose backed with lots of money and knows little except what his funders tell him.  Government is made up of people who get their positions by being qualified and competing for their jobs based on merit.  (Yes, I know it doesn't always happen perfectly, but we're all imperfect human beings.  At least government has a lot more transparency than business, so governments can be held accountable.  And yes, there's a hybrid of these two - the top level policy appointments of the newly elected executive.  They usually need legislative approval.  This works when there are healthy oppositions and reasonable politicians who are working for the public good and not some rote ideology.)
Gerhart did make this second point, and it's important.  And she also emphasized the importance of relationships. First, knowing the relationships among politicians and between politicians and those trying to influence them.  Second, relationships are important for politicians to get good legislation written and passed, so the government can implement it.  

What she's talking about is important to me, but not new.

Now she's talking about reaching out to non-voters.  "I don't think there is another side to 'everyone needs to vote.'"  Of course there are.  There are situations where the elections are rigged and not voting makes an important statement about the illegitimacy of the election and the government.  One could even argue that having Trump win was the emergency that Americans needed to understand how important government is and their participation is.  I'm not making that argument, but I wouldn't simply dismiss it.

Gerhart started out saying that when she started at the Washington Post she knew nothing about politics.  An early job was to write a political gossip column - who was partying who whom, etc.  That's when she said that relationships are important.  And I agree.  It was her fear that she'd mix up an R or a D behind someone's name in the column, that got her more into politics.  The things she's saying about getting to non-voters (as candidates and more in this talk as journalists) is right on the mark.  But she really had nothing more than platitudes about how to go about doing this.

As I'm listening and typing here, I'm wondering if I should even post this.  Her talk is good and she talks really well.  She's like an experienced older sister sharing her wisdom that has taken her years to acquire.  Her topic, though, is an area that I have expertise on.  (Most sessions look more at the journalism aspects that I don't know as well.)  And so I'm sucked in to reacting to some of what she's saying.

Looking around we have some key Alaskan political writers in the room.  Nathaniel Herz who is the ADN's legislative reporter is here and Dermot Cole has just asked about how to write about complicated budget issues.  And her answers are good.  She even said, "I don't know how to answer that.  We have to solve that problem every day, how to write about this in a way that is fresh every day."  And she acknowledged that sometimes what people prevent from happening is more important than getting something done.  That's a hard story to write.

She's talking about remembering the underlying conversation, rather than the specifics of the debate.  This is critical, it's what I try to do all the time.  I do like her and what she's saying.  This is really a conversation in a bar more than a conference presentation.  It's not organized with points she wants to make.  But rather it's sincere and as she talks and people ask questions, important ideas come up and are shared.

She's talking about two women in a bar who live nearby each other and seem the same, but it turns out they had totally different ideas.  It's about, she's saying, after all, who we want to be and how we want to get there.

I do want to talk to her during the break.

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