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Parking Politics 101

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I hope my political science colleagues in the Faculty of Arts & Education very carefully document everything that is happening in the Deakin University parking discourse (which, I hear from reliable sources, will go down into history as ‘The Great Deakin Parking Battle of 2011’).
Virtually every aspect of the issue lends itself to exquisite political analysis. It also allows for an absolutely hermetic alignment with principles of engaged student learning, life-integrated learning (let’s please move beyond the shallow ‘work-integrated learning’) and various aspects of reflexivity, both for students and staff! Over time, you would hope, even the Executive –through a process of osmosis- might actually learn a thing or two about this.
Let’s start, for instance, with what Joe Gusfield has called the ownership of policy problems. He alludes to something he calls the ‘symbolic order’. The actor that ‘owns’ a problem, Gusfield maintains, is allowed to formulate its solutions. What is interesting, of course, is the idea of some degree of transparent governance and open discourse around problem ownership. Such governance and discourse would allow for processes of negotiation and attribution. At our university, fortunately (?), we haven’t had to deal with such messy governance affairs. Our Executive has unilaterally declared there is a problem (parking!) and a solution (finance!).
The formulation of the problem and its positioning in the intricate network of people and events that sustain or destroy the issue (and yes, brothers and sisters in A&E, I am talking of Actor Network Theory!) can of course not happen in blissful isolation. That is why we receive long e-mail communiqués from our Leader explaining what the problem is and why it is necessary to take robust action (another take on the political analysis, by the way, is to look at political symbolism and rhetoric – I would recommend Chapter 6 of Deborah Stone’s fascinating Policy Paradox be included in the required readings for Parking Politics 101).
Apparently we, at Deakin, are concerned about carbon emissions and sustainability. Taxing the bad car-driving polluters would adequately deal with these matters. If only our Executive had read the government's full-colour brochure (printed on recycled and acid-free paper, mind you) that we all found wrapped in PVC (oops, maybe not so environment-friendly) on our doorstep. It would have shown that the problem is more intricate, and the solutions more complex. The outcome of this simplistic Deakin’s problem analysis might not be as nonsensical as Lord Monckton who commented on the ‘carbon tax’ as plunging Australia toward becoming a “Third World banana monarchy’ (although I know in fact very pleasant banana monarchies). What it shows is an effort to legitimize a decision that is foreseen to have unpleasant implications.
So – the solution proposed does not fully align with the problem identified. That is not surprising. Peeking into the Executive mindset the political analyst would instantly recognize that a problem formulation such as “Parking is too high a resource burden on the University”, through its translation “Let’s offload that burden on employees and students” with an outcome that reads “We will no longer subsidize parking – pay cost” would generate a street revolution that makes the recent riots in Tottenham look like an outing to Ninety Mile Beach. And yet! That is possibly exactly how my colleagues and students will have read the message!
Would there have been a different, or even better, way to deal with wicked issues such as ‘The Great Deakin Parking Battle of 2011’? I would certainly think so! I would point my students to the recent work of Hill & Hupe on multiple governance approaches to policy and politics; they point out that governance actions can take different shapes (constitutive – changing rules; directive – the application of rules; and operational – the management of networks) for different levels or situations (systems, organizational components, and individuals). Each of the nine resulting options should be interdependent on the others for optimal and accountable policy processes. Yep – it takes a bit more time than the traditional ways – but then you do get quality policy!
Such quality policy would also include quality interventions, I would hope Parking Politics 101 could demonstrate. The financial tool is an awfully blunt axe to chop with. Where are the other incentives to reduce parking burdens? How about creative, left field and out of the box thinking, approaches to whatever the problem really may have been? Has Deakin started negotiating with those competent MyKi folk offering discounted, salary-packaged MyKis for easier, better public transport? Where are the offers for salary-packaged bicycle acquisitions in exchange for a commitment not to purchase parking tickets? Has anyone considered outsourcing and PPP-ing the parking business to DUSA? How far have plans advance to make some very serious millions out of the most expensive piece of underutilized land Deakin University owns (yes – the main parking lot at Waterfront)? Has anyone anywhere really weighed the different intervention options (regulation; facilitation; communication) and considered the synergies a combination of the appropriate and strategic use each of these would allow for?
Give it a year – if we run the first iteration of Parking Politics 101 in Tri3 and have students do a proper analytical essay for their end-of-semester assignment we may actually win the Battle!
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