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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All Governance (like Politics) is Local

Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives during the Kennedy/Johnson years, is famously said to have offered the advice that "All politics is local."  If there is anyone out there who doesn't understand that Data Governance is politics then wait.

If we're to gain any advantage from the former Speaker's wisdom, we going to have to pull it apart and take a look at all the pieces.  Clearly he wasn't denying the existence of national and even international politics.  He had participated in politics at every possible level so what did he mean and how can we benefit?

First of all the context (which is always eliminated from "sound bites") is that of successful politics.  Which of us doesn't dream of successful data governance?  If we can accept that DG is political rather than technological or administrative or managerial, then we're ready to make use of political wisdom in our quest for successful data governance.

Successful politics is about getting enough people to come with you so that you can accomplish a vision.  Because we're human, we look for shortcuts.  We start by assuming that if we can convince the right person then that person will bring everyone else along.  So we start with our elevator speech in case we find ourselves confined with an influential person for any period of time. 

We also adopt the position that money will equate to support.  We pursue funding which requires approval at the executive level.  In short, we focus much if not most of our efforts on the critical few in the blind hope that all others are followers.

For sheep this may work.  Substantial research has been done on flock or herd behavior in an attempt to understand how humans are influenced to move one way or the other.  We have all seen a flock of starlings or sparrows or a school of fish suddenly change direction--apparently with a single will.  What magic would get people to act that way?  Leaving aside the question of goal or vision, which may or may not involve the common good, if we could master this magical force, think of all the effort that could be put to better use.

I have read some of this research and at the risk of oversimplification the answer lies not in identifying the leader but in identifying the first followers.  When one bird or fish or wildebeest, in motion, changes direction it may be for any reason or no reason at all.  If no one comes with them, they will very quickly rejoin the mass.  If another individual comes along then two going in the same direction exert some "gravitational" attraction that acts to influence others in the vicinity.

In the human world we divide people into leaders and followers.  More generally, we try to create leaders by assigning titles or creating org charts.  As mentioned above, we intend to leverage leadership by devoting our efforts to affecting their path, trusting that they will bring with them enough followers to makes our effort successful.  The problem with all of this is that titles do not confer leadership. 

What lesson can we learn then from Tip's advice?  My own take is that, rather than search for a leader, we might better be a leader, campaigning locally and helping our neighbors and those in need.  When we have one or more others with us because they are benefiting form the relationship we become much more effective in changing the direction of the heard.  Tip understood that grand political movements arise from individual voters recognizing common goals. No legislation is effective when the governed choose not to obey.  Devote your efforts locally and pay attention to what your neighbors in the next block are saying.

Politics is local.

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