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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sprawl and awl that....

More observations from my temporary perch in Florida:

Randi posted this picture on her blog to remind me that it snowed on Thursday. I have a talent for being out of town during snowfalls in Beverly. The last time I was around for such an event it was a "doozie" -- last January I got stranded in Beverly by one of the biggest blizzards in the region's history and could not make it back to Belfast (I was still on fellowship leave there at the time).

This time I am making do with the sunshine in the Ft. Lauderdale area, and while the 80 degree temps and sunshine are nice, I still would find it difficult to take this for more than a short visit. It isn't the weather as much as the "sprawl" that seems to characterize this entire region. It doesn't help that many trees are gone as a result of Wilma, but I had the same feeling the last time I was here as well.

My mother lives in an area that ten or fifteen years ago was prime retirement property for folks in their mid sixties. The complex she resides in has few folks younger than their seventies and eighties, although the place is open to anyone over 55 (which means babyboomers like me qualify). But this is not the kind of place folks of my cohort are likely to select for retirement. They might come to Florida, but their choices (I suspect) will likely be further north. I also get the impression that places like Arizona and New Mexico are more attractive to those who are hitting their sixties now (my older sibling, who lived her entire life in New York, finds Albuquerque to be a fantastic place to live)

Since I spent most of my teenage and college years in southern Colorado I can see the attraction of the southwest to northeasterners, but for now I actually find New England a good place to live. But then I am a bit short of retirement age.... What New England doesn't have, however, is that sense of sprawl. Yes, it has its vast suburban tracts, but perhaps there is something about the terrain that makes even the most suburban of areas seem somewhat more "rural" than suburban. We noticed the difference when we moved from New Jersey to Beverly -- in NJ the typical suburban homeowner strives for ostentatious display, while in New England the mode is quiet and quaint. (Compare, for example, the homes you see in "The Sopranos" with those being made over on "This Old House".) I don't know how these regional differences are sustained, but my impression is that there is a somewhat invisible cultural boundary one crosses somewhere in northern Connecticut where living style and standards tend to change.

Obviously, for now at least I prefer the northern side of that boundary....

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Transparency and PR....

Reading a post by friend Stephen got me thinking about the reformist preoccupation with "transparency" and its place on the pantheon of "good qualities" that all government agents and agencies are supposed to strive for.

Transparency has become an evaluative standard of good governance, and it has taken iconic form throughout the world. Legally it is manifest in the various Freedom of Information acts (FOIA) dotting the global landscape,and administratively it finds expression in ombudsman offices and other organizational forms designed to keep agency actions accessible and processes open to public view and scrutiny. And few NGOs have the attention grabbing clout of Transparency International when it releases its country by country ratings.

What Stephen draws attention to is the role PR plays in government, and it is clear that we seem conflicted over whether it is a good or bad thing. Historically, it is clear that those agencies we know the most and best work hard to achieve a positive image or impression -- and that some even use the services of PR professionals to do so.

The link between transparency and accountability is obvious but often unstated. By its very nature, transparency requires a form of account giving -- either through reports, assessments, the development of mechanisms for dealing with problems and complaints, etc. The irony is that all account giving -- whether determined by those who demand it (the principals) or supply it (the agents) -- requires actions that reduce transparency to some degree.

In that sense, "transparency" is itself a communications misnomer, for it implies that pure clarity of information -- the ability to obtain access without any distortions or obstacles -- is possible. There is nothing objectively transparent about real world information -- it is all filtered through some framing on either the sending or receiving end. Those who control the preparation, presentation or receipt and interpretation of information engaged in some form of distortion. That much is a given. The issue for the various actors involved -- demanders or suppliers -- is how to respond to the situation.

For some agents, so-called transparency is a tool to enhance one's situation -- to offset criticism and crises by letting the people you serve (or who pay the bills) know what you do and how you do it in a favorable light. J. Edgar Hoover was a master of this from his early years as head of the FBI until near the end of his life (he seems to have lost control of the "presentation" during his last years). From the outset he engaged in PR, and it would not be surprising to learn that he also worked with PR professionals (especially during the heydays of FBI-inspired movies and TV programs). One might even regard his PR operation as a model for turning the demand for transparency into an impression management tool....

But of course those reformers who advocate transparency would want to avoid agent-control of the information and image being presented, so they are likely to call for specification of the account giving. But even here it is extremely difficult to avoid driving the agent to the PR consultant, for all forms of account giving require the development of presentation tools -- and it would be a sign of incompetence for the agent not to attempt to make that presentation as positive (or at least minimize negativity) as possible.

All this requires further investigation - which I guess is what I do for a living. Thanks to Stephen and his post for the inspiration....

Sociable Geek

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

A diverted trip....

A planned trip to Australia this week was diverted to Florida due to a family emergency, and I have been getting lost around the area north of Ft. Lauderdale running various errands. As a result I have seen quite a bit more of this area than I would have otherwise. Some observations:

First, I suspect you really don't get a good idea about the damage of a hurricane unless you visit an area that has been hit hard several weeks later. We all get to see the wind driven rains as the storm is in progress, and we often see the damage done in the immediate aftermath. But even with Katrina, the visuals (and often the story) disappears or begins to fade with time.

It has been more than one month since Wilma crossed the Florida peninsula on October 24, and the cleanup and repairs are still very much in progress. I happen to be staying in the area of Ft. Lauderdale that took the main hit of Wilma, and it shows. Relatively neat stacks of debris are found on many streets as people are just getting around to clearing their homes of damaged carpets and furniture. There are some palm trees down, and many of those that are standing have only one branch emerging out of their long cylinder trunks -- and those with more have only one healthy looking branch among the bunch. The branches that did not make it are scattered all over the streets and roads -- a full month later, mind you.... Large stumps along the sides of the roads are evidence that a great many other mature trees of various kinds were casualties of Wilma. Cypress trees remain bent over and broken, as do street signs of all sorts You can almost track the strength of the wind and course of the storm in the commercial areas where store fronts and signs are mangled or broken.

Another dimension of the damage shows up in the health care system. I have been hanging about a local hospital over the past few days, and through the anecdotal evidence it seems that Wilma is having a delayed but long term impact on the health of some folks. For some, festering conditions were triggered and new ailments took root as the days (and in some cases weeks) without power, stress and accidents linked to the cleanup took their toll. Infections, respiratory and heart problems seem common. Again, this is with a month gone by.

Two things should be noted to put this particular storm event in context. According to one individual who has lived here quite awhile, despite the region's general exposure to hurricanes each year, Wilma was the first one in memory (45 years was the figure given) in which the community around Margate, FL got a direct hit from a major storm. In addition, Wilma was a bit of a unique event, coming through as quickly as it did from the west. (I was in the same location when another hurricane came through Florida several years ago – I believe it was 2001 -- and that was bad enough as I watched in awe as the street flooding and wind and rain created a lasting impression on me; the residents took that one in stride, so I can only imagine what this must have been like since every one I speak with tells me they had never experienced the conditions of Wilma in all their years in Margate).

Looking over the stack of mail in the household I am staying with, I notice that FEMA and the local authorities really do seem to be on top of this event. The city even leaves phone messages regarding cleanup schedules and related announcements. No one seems to be complaining (and it seems that this is a community prone to complaining), so all must be going well. It is clear from my roaming about the shopping areas during this "big sales" period that the consumer economy is doing okay as well.

On a personal level, my family member seems to be on the road to recovery, but I have several days remaining before I head back north. More observations -- and perhaps some pics -- to follow....

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

There is accountability in them thar hills....

The gap between postings is widening, and a bit of guilt is starting to gnaw away at me. I am scheduled to give some talks "down under" over the next two weeks, and preparation for that has taken up all my spare time -- of which there is very little....

One accomplishment, however, has been to convince Randi to use her artistic skills and talents to make a visual for my powerpoint presentation which we having been talking about for months. In many of my lectures on accountability over the past few years, I have made reference to the "iconic" status of the word in politics and in the news. By way of outrageous example, I have been saying that the word "accountability" is close to achieving the status now held by the well known "Hollywood" that we are all familiar with.

Well, here it how it would look folks, courtesy of Randi's artistry and her magical software.... As you might note, I have adopted it as my blog "logo"!

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