Back when I was hired by the National Road Administration my role was fairly soon defined by a colleague of mine. Juha worked with road project assesment and his role was ‘to find out why the road needs to be built’. Mine was ‘to tell why the road should not be built’. So, that I did for almost a quarter of a century. Those who know Finnish road engineers may ask how I managed to survive. There is an attitude, ‘TVHn henki’ – the NRA spirit – that tends to target any people working there and make them into the same shape of road fanatics as the original motorway office that was its ideological motor in the 1950s and 60s. But, actually, I had fun and magnificent colleagues. A couple of – short – times they even made me team boss. And sent me around the world in a lot of cute committee meetings, enervating other road people.
The point is, I was the official reformer. Those who were not could get into stressful situations, but for me, almost any idea I got was adopted. In a way. Four times I, my colleagues and consultants tried to invent the ‘urban road’, that is a public road that would fit into the city, but it was not my employers’ fault that we failed every time. It just doesn’t work. So, boulevards.
For those who know Helsinki, take a look at Vuotie, the Vuosaari entry. We and the responsible Helsinki administrators (it is actually a city street, not a road) were very proud of it. But, really. An urban street it is not.
I think mine is a typical case for present-day administrations and many other organisations. You have the official reformers, mediators, democratisers, greenpeacers or whatnot and are actually serious – that is a difference from before – in employing them, not greenwashing (very much), listening to them and letting them speak out. Some of them do as I did, act nicely and keep getting back to matters in a non-aggressive way. Others simply can’t go on for very long in that mode. There is a translation gap between the Kautskys and the Lenins: does one want to be a part of the machinery, hoping to help it change, or should the whole shebang be pulled down?’
(Turning back from the blackboard towards his audience) For an activist, it may be important to realise that the sympathetic administration listener may be an official reformer, but very seldom a radical of any kind. If you want them to deal with You, it may be wise to ‘speak softly’. But of course, that motto goes on with ‘and carry a big stick’: because that official reformer will probably not reform that much if You do not have a good size, outspoken gang of people around who definitely do not need to be nice.