Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On voluntary measures

As I've noted in previous posts, the NDP's response to the Lingenfelter membership controversy - consisting of quickly commissioning as thorough an investigation as was possible in the compressed time frame of a leadership race, and expressing every willingness to cooperate with any additional investigation - has generally been above reproach. But there's one piece of the party's position which may be problematic, particularly to the extent it mirrors some of the excuses out of the Lingenfelter camp for failing to take any action against the individuals involved:
Sources have identified the volunteer at the centre of the allegations as Ernest Morin, a Meadow Lake resident and former president of the aboriginal wing of the NDP in the late 1990s.

Morin's name was made public last week, which McDonald described as "unfortunate."

"He is a volunteer. We all rely on volunteers to do many, many, many things," she said.
Similarly, Lingenfelter seems to have take the position that the volunteer roles held by Morin and Garry Aldridge preclude any accountability for the two individuals who have been found to have been involved - Morin deliberately (though it's unclear whether he ever held a formal title), and Aldridge through a lack of oversight as Lingenfelter's campaign manager. As I've heard the position stated, one can't fire a volunteer.

And it's true enough that the precise effect of firing a paid employee may be different front that which applied in the case of volunteers. But that's a far cry from saying that a campaign doesn't have any ability to move or remove its volunteer workers where a problem arises. Whether a particular individual is paid or not, it's obviously in Lingenfelter's hands to assign titles within his campaign, or to state that a particular volunteer should be kept away from a particular type of task.

From that starting point, the question is then whether the better stance is to throw up one's hands and say it's impossible to do anything about problems within a campaign, or to set an expectation that volunteers will be placed in positions that they're capable of handling - and in turn will act reasonably when in those positions. And when the choice is put in those terms, I don't see what benefit would come from leaving individuals in positions where they're already publicly seen to have failed at their responsibilities.

Likewise, the party shouldn't consider it a problem for an individual volunteer to have his name revealed in the face of an issue like this one. In fact, it seems to me that it's protecting the name of a volunteer who engages in dubious practices which seems more likely to produce negative outcomes.

After all, as long as the party preserved anonymity for Morin by simply labelling the person responsible for the membership controversy as an anonymous "volunteer", the result was to create a negative image of the concept of volunteering for the NDP in general. And it can hardly be a positive result if wrongdoers see themselves as protected by a commitment to anonymity, while all other volunteers for the party bear a share of the embarrassment that results.

In contrast, with Morin's name public, it's far easier to draw a distinction between the vast majority of volunteers who have honestly and selflessly worked to help out each of the leadership campaigns, and the single individual whose actions have embarrassed himself and his candidate. Which would seem to provide better incentives both in terms of the type of person likely to volunteer their time and effort, and in terms of the decisions made by those already within the NDP camp.

In closing, I'll note that the repeated emphasis on the value of volunteering within the NDP might itself serve as a useful jumping-off point to ask what measures the party and its leadership candidates should be taking to make sure that volunteers stay within the party's standard of acceptable behaviour.

While Lingenfelter has discussed importing the types of requirements which exist in other sectors to constituency renewal, other organizations which include some volunteer component tend to have a set of policies and training requirements which apply to those volunteers, along with clear lines of accountability for supervision. And while it may be a bit late for the leadership campaigns to start down that road, there's plenty of time for the NDP to discuss the issue before the next time a major volunteer effort is required.

Of course, neither the NDP nor any of the leadership camps should want to impose undue barriers on those who are interested in helping out. And one can't set exactly the same standards for volunteers as for paid workers. But it's ultimately better for everybody if both actual and potential volunteers have a good idea of what's expected of them - and one could hardly ask for a more striking example of the costs to the party where that isn't the case.

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