Does a change make a difference?

One of the challenges for anyone trying to do their own personal due diligence is separating the changes that will matter from the noise of the many more that really won’t make a difference.

We have the chance to see a change that probably won’t make a difference next week, for instance.

Unless we’re all deeply surprised, it looks as though no matter how many seats turn over in the US House of Representatives, control of the House will remain in the hands of the Republican party — and the Tea Party faction within that party that made it hard for the Speaker and House Leader to deal to accomplish anything will continue to be strong.

Meanwhile, in the US Senate, even though a number of seats are expected to change hands, the end result is expected to leave the Senate in the hands of the Democratic party — but with (as today) insufficient votes to overcome the use of Senate rules to stall their agenda.

In other words, the famous Congressional deadlock will continue — and therefore it won’t matter a whit whether President Obama gets his second term, or is replaced by Mitt Romney. Neither will be facing a Congress that is likely to be any more productive than the one we’ve been looking at.

Changes that will make a difference are seldom so obvious at first — indeed, it parallels the observation that most of the news that matters is found far back in the paper, in a very small article on the bottom corner of the page.

For matters political, for instance, the bigger trends of our time are not making the front pages, but are of more interest to a career.

All over the Western world, for instance, politics at the national scale, and often at the provincial or state scale, have become the province of political staffers.

Candidates are selected from people who have worked for the party, or one of its close associates (in Australia, for instance, Labor Party candidates might have been union executives), for years. Unlike thirty years ago, these people have not had other careers, and have spent years in a partisan bubble.

Any wonder left as to why co-operation between political opponents is getting harder to come by?

But there’s one place left where hyperpartisanship and political bubbles are being eschewed: the municipal level.

Increasingly, strong politicians are walking away from the opportunity to move “up” to higher levels in favour of staying in their community.

Mayors from major cities around the world are already working together, around their senior levels of government, on sustainability, transformation and transition issues.

There are also early signs emerging of people coming back to the cities and towns from political careers at other levels: MPs resigning to seek Mayor’s chairs, for instance.

Given the weakness of Canadian municipalities — they lack the range of funding options and self-control that cities in many other countries have — why would anyone leave the so-called “fulcrums of power” to seek to be just first-amongst-equals on a city council?

It’s because it’s the level of government where change is happening. Slowly, cities are awakening to the realization that their provinces/states, their nations, and their nations’ international affairs, aren’t going to come together to solve their problems — and that those problems can be solved locally.

Ah, now, you say “but that doesn’t apply to me, because I’d never go into politics, or work in the public sector”. Hold on.

Take a look at Totnes, in Devon, in England. It’s a town of about 10,000 people, somewhat off the beaten track. It’s also a place that has a lot of community spirit.

The major UK coffee chain, Costa, wanted to open a store on the high street. Most towns would see this as a plus: “at last, we’re being discovered, soon we’ll have tourists, and growth, and…”

Totnes fought back. You see, Totnes has 41 independently owned coffee shops already. That’s 41 local businesses.

Not only did the community rally to keep this chain from setting up shop, the town got in the way, too. It didn’t take the civic protest to do it, either: here was a town council that could see the consequences of letting Costa go ahead, and the consequences of saying “no”, and made tough decisions.

If you were the person at Costa responsible for “getting our market share” out of the south west of England, this is a shot across your career bow.

So it does matter. I hope you see that.

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