by Brodie Schmidt & Kristie Derkson
Brodie Schmidt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
It is becoming increasingly accepted that the establishment of protected areas in Canada is entangled in political processes (Botchwey & Cunningham, 2021; Bella, 2007). Botchwey & Cunningham (2021) offer further supporting context in this article to, “suggest that the political characteristics of protected areas do not lend themselves easily to politicization, but […] at the federal level, and provincially in Alberta, the rate of protected area establishment is becoming increasingly tied to electoral politics, suggesting some politicization”. Taking this a step further, this blog highlights that these politicized elements do not dissipate once park establishment takes place. The power structures, motivations, and underlying influences associated with established protected areas are guided by the very politics that brought them into being. Even if not overtly so, public servants live in an inherently political world – parks people being no exception (Siegel, 2020).
How can and do public servants navigate this political parks world?
I sat down with Kristie Derkson, an interim issues advisor and full time senior policy planner from Alberta Parks, to discuss this question and her approach to political acuity. The conversation we had can be encapsulated through answering three questions: What is political acuity? Why do park leaders need it? And how does one practice political acuity?
What is Political Acuity?
In this video we hear Dr. Peter Constantinou discussing the topic of political acuity, through an interview with Municipal World CEO Susan Gardner. Constantinou explains that, “political acuity […] is the idea of knowing and understanding how – in the wider context – all the various unknowns of daily life impact the decisions people make. It is also […] knowing when to do something and when not to do something, or understanding when something will be acceptable and when it will not”. The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association (OMSSA) offers their own definition of political acuity through their workshop website, framing it as being, “… about judgement; understanding an issue, its origins, and the players, developing an approach, and knowing when to act”.
Why Should Political Acuity Matter to Park Leaders?
Kristie echoed this view in our interview, and took it a step further by emphasizing that we need to be able to understand the political landscapes of our organizations. She says that political acuity can help to understand the power structures, motivations, and influences at play in the government decision making process, and moreover, the implications that these decisions have at policy making and public levels. Through strengthening one’s ability to practice political acuity, park leaders are better equipped to navigate politically sensitive situations, and in knowing what to advise to leadership officials, and when.
As said by Kristie, “… a lot of parks folks are quite focused on the operations, and the day to day in the field, but there’s another aspect of it, right? We work under democratically elected governments who may or may not have differing ideas of how we operate, and sometimes that causes joy, and sometimes that causes conflict with our work and within ourselves. […] sometimes there’s also gaps in understanding about what is needed, or what is desired and why, on both sides, and I think that […] Political Acuity can help translate it. It’s almost like they’re two separate columns, and political acuity […] can be the bridge that helps them connect and see each other’s viewpoints and get things done with a little bit more understanding of each other”.
Now that we have framed the topic of political acuity generally, we can narrow in on the main themes that have come from this conversation which are of relevance to park leaders. I asked Kristie if she could speak to how, exactly, political acuity helps her to maneuver through barriers in her work. Her response, although uniquely situated within her own position, provides some profound lessons learned that could translate well to other park leaders’ situations.
“Some of the main challenges I’ve been facing with Political Acuity is that a lot of times, as I previously mentioned, there is a disparity between what is desired on the government end, compared to in both operations and the field, and so trying to get a solution where both parties are satisfied is often impossible. […] The steps to take here can be tricky but the ultimate solution is that we practice truth to power and inform the decision makers; however, when it comes to voicing up concerns and recommendations, sometimes flexibility on timing and knowing who and what to include is the key to success. This can be an issue for a lot of us and it takes a deeper understanding of the public zeitgeist, the political climate, and appropriate timing of issues. Often success stems from having the foresight to do the work beforehand and putting it on a shelf to wait and have it ready and on hand when the timing is right.”
This theme, which I thank Kristie for nodding towards, regarding the gap between overhead mandates and local realities, has emerged through a few discussions I have had with various park leaders this year. From Kristie’s experience, honing in her political acuity is supporting her efforts to be the bridge and translator between the two. Perhaps practicing political acuity could improve connectivity within your network as well.
How does one practice political acuity?
“I think initially some people just have a more inherent ability, or they have more inherent political acuity, their emotional IQ is a bit higher, their personal friendships, they are much more approachable… But I think it can be learned, and I think it can be learned through […] experience, mentoring, and developing those key personal relationships that can provide insight and support that other means cannot. It is important to support and help other co-workers out across the ministerial spectrum when you can. Those types of initiatives and support, beyond helping the public service in general and making it better for everyone, are remembered and can offer you the same if needed. […]”
The experience that Kristie alludes to when discussing political acuity development is multifaceted. Operational experience, “knowing the hierarchy, and the processes without them being written down”, is one tool that Kristie identifies as being useful in building political astuteness. Moving beyond recognizing the ebbs and flows of the system you work within, to including interpersonal effectiveness and emotional intelligence in your toolkit, is key. In doing so, Kristie believes leaders are likely to improve their, “awareness of other people […], and their desires and wants and sort of unspoken messages that are coming through”. Beyond primers on emotional intelligence, are there tools that park leaders can use to strengthen these experientially-based skills?
Kristie says, yes: “The tools that I use are working groups. I try to never do anything on my own, I always have people that I consult with. I always do a lot of communicating and engagement internally. I think that a big key to political acuity is communicating and talking to the people involved, including those on the ground and in the executive chairs, and trying to figure out what exactly is the issue, what exactly are the solutions desired, and how can we make them work for everyone. It is imperative to get the field and operations staff on board with executive decisions because they are the ones that will be carrying them out and the success and longevity of the decisions depend on staff buy-in. Likewise, it is imperative to get what is working and what is not on the ground up to the executive so they can make the decisions as informed as possible.”
Through exposing herself to numerous perspectives whilst conducting work, Kristie’s personal experiences and understandings are expanding. Adding to this idea of personal experience, Kristie also notes the significance of others’ experiences and learning from those, both internally and within your broader network.
“I actually went and got myself a mentor from a different ministry who gave me some tips. I have a mentor who used to be a minister, who is retired right now, so I get tips from her. I guess it’s a collaboration, and it’s a team, right?”
On the note of mentoring, Kristie also reminded me that, “you have to bring something to the table as well. You can’t just say, ‘hey, can you be my mentor?’, you have to have something to offer too”. In reflecting on her own experiences with mentoring, Kristie mentions that “I reached out to people and I made those relationships. Purchased breakfasts with ADMs in charity auctions, went to book signings, joined side-of-desk initiatives within government, volunteered outside of government[…] I did all of that, and I put in the time and effort to build those relationships myself”. Although formalized mentor programs offer great opportunities for learning (ex., Project Learning Tree (PLT) Canada’s Green Mentor Program), Kristie’s journey through political acuity has centered strongly around personal relationships and the experiences that extend from them.
“I think personal relationships are a huge part of political acuity”, says Kristie. Although she also acknowledges the barriers to fostering those relationships within some workplaces: “I think the government misses out on these team building exercises very often, and that’s unfortunate because I think if we did [have those opportunities], we’d be more effective. […] When I worked in private industry, for example, we would have barbecues at lunchtime, or one day we showed up at work and the boss had rented a bus and we all got on the bus and we went go karting. It was just a surprise”.
Building a strong work team culture through personal relationships allows for folks to get on the same page, or strengthen trust and communication abilities to get onto the same page. It is important that staff are aware of other projects and programs going on in the organization, and that can come from natural conversations. In other conversations with park leaders, they have recognized the need to prepare staff to be able to answer questions that the public has about projects being implemented, even if they are not directly involved; if anything, supporting the ability to know who to direct questions to. How can public servants build personal relationships with peers in lieu of team building opportunities characteristically tied to private business?
“Go for lunch or have coffee with people! Sure, you’re going to sit and talk about your dog for 20 minutes, but then you might also be like, “hey, what do you think about this topic?” and they’re going to give you their feedback, and you’re going to learn things”.
Like any relationship-based skill, Kristie also reiterates that political acuity is not a box-checking exercise.
“ I think it’s a lifelong, ongoing process. I don’t think anyone “achieves” political acuity, you know? You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to go the wrong direction sometimes, you’re going to suggest something at the wrong time, and what you do with that work is you just take it, put it back on the shelf, and then you wait until you can sense where it will be welcome again. You just have to have patience with political acuity and you have to make mistakes. […]. Also, looking at the relationships you make with people, make them solid. If someone does something nice for you, have their back. That’ll get you way farther than any report that you write.”
After reading this blog, we hope that leaders in the parks and protected areas field are better equipped to identify the political undertones within their day-to-day work. Moreover, through sharing lessons learned from Kristie’s own unique experiences, readers can hone in their own skills related to political acuity. Through seeking out multifarious experiences, mentorship opportunities, and strengthened personal relationships, individuals are well positioned to practice truth to power in politically acute ways.
For further resources regarding the topic of political acuity, please see below.
Further Resources on the Topic
Canadian Association for Municipal Administrators Political Acumen Toolkit
“Recognizing the importance of political understanding to the role of senior administrators in local government, the Board of the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA) formed a Committee to find ways of strengthening political acumen as a core competency for CAOs, their direct reports, and the next generation of municipal leaders. The Political Acumen Toolkit is the result of the efforts of this Committee.”
Hartley, J. & Fletcher, C. (2008). Leading with Political Awareness: Leadership Across Diverse Interests Inside and Outside the Organisation. Leadership Perpectives: pp. 163
Abstract: “This chapter examines some current limitations of leadership theory which focuses on leadership in rather than of the organisation and which underplays the skills of leading across diverse and sometimes competing interests both inside and outside the organisation. We propose an alternative view of leadership which we call leading with political awareness but political astuteness, or political savvy are also expressions of this capability. The chapter is based on a large UK research project with middle and senior private, public and voluntary sector managers, which involved a literature review, focus groups with 41 managers; a survey of 1,475 managers and 12 interviews (details in Hartley et al., 2007). The chapter does not report on the empirical findings, but rather sets out some themes concerned with why leadership increasingly needs to take into account political awareness skills; the contexts where such skills are needed; how politics and therefore political awareness is conceptualised; and crucially, a framework of political skills. The chapter argues that political awareness skills raise new questions for leadership theory because the research takes into account the leadership of difference leadership outside as well as, inside the organisation, and the strategic context of leadership.”
This article shared a 5 part political awareness framework that identifies the skills that public servants need in order to develop political awareness. They are:
- Personal skills: self awareness, curiosity about others, openness to change
- Interpersonal skills: ability to influence others, negotiating skills, handling conflict to arrive at positive ends
- Reading people and situations: understanding the motivations of other individuals and organizations, ability to utilize this information to predict likely outcomes of interactions
- Building alignment and alliances: understanding how individuals and organizations with apparently conflicting objectives can work together to achieve goals
- Strategic direction and scanning: long term thinking to further the goals of the organization without being distracted by short term problems
Ontario Municipal Social Services Association Political Acuity Workshop
“This course is specifically designed for public sector leaders and staff who wish to move into leadership roles. Building your political acuity will help you and your team to influence decisions, achieve organizational objectives and deliver results. This one-day course will cultivate your political acuity by developing the skills and knowledge you need to navigate the complex formal and informal systems within your municipality as well as the external political environment.”
Siegel, D. (2020). Public servants and politics: Developing acuity in local government. Canadian Public Administration 63(4).
Abstract: “A good relationship between council and senior staff is essential for the successful operation of the municipality. However, the academic treatment of the council-staff relationship has lagged real-world expectations. The purpose of this article is to extend the literature on council-staff relations by identifying the competencies associated with the concept of political acuity needed to maintain this good relationship.
La reussite du fonctionnement d’une municipalite depend essentiellement d’une bonne relation entre le conseil municipal et les hauts fonctionnaires. Cependant, la perception des universitaires concemant la relation entre le conseil et les fonctionnaires est en decalage avec les atientes du monde reel. Cet article vise a elargir la documentation sur les relations entre conseil municipal et fonctionnaires en identifiant les competences associees au concept de perspicacite politique necessaires au maintien de cette bonne relation.”
Bella, L. (1986). The politics of preservation: Creating National Parks in Canada, and in the United States, England and Wales. Planning Perspectives, 1(3), 189–206. https://doi.org/10.1080/02665438608725623
Botchwey, B. S., & Cunningham, C. (2021). The politicization of Protected Areas Establishment in Canada. FACETS, 6, 1146–1167. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2020-0069
Hartley, J., & Fletcher, C. (2008). Leading with political awareness: Leadership across diverse interests inside and outside the organisation. Leadership Perspectives, 163–176. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230584068_12
Municipal World. (2018). Political acuity: A guide to managing conflict in the workplace. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qLePOssTT0&ab_channel=MunicipalWorld.
Siegel, D. (2020). Public servants and politics: Developing political acuity in local government. Canadian Public Administration, 63(4), 620–639. https://doi.org/10.1111/capa.12381