Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
By Angel Huang, Contributor
There is an underlying, structural barrier to carrying out successful long-term plans in the McMaster Students Union. This barrier is not related to the quality of ideas, nor the competency of MSU leadership. It’s especially not because our leaders simply don’t try to implement long-term change (they absolutely do!). The real villain here is the systemic inefficacy that comes from term turnover.
As someone who has been involved with the MSU in various capacities for nearly four years (including as First Year Council Vice Chair, Macademics Coordinator, Student Representative Assembly Committee Member and the current Associate Vice-President: Provincial and Federal Affairs), I can confidently attest to the very real efforts made by presidents, vice-presidents, part-time managers and associate vice-presidents. But from my personal experience, the reason why a lot of these efforts fail to create fruitful impact is partly because long-term initiatives entail more detailed planning, risk management and tons of communication and consultation compared to short-term initiatives.
This. Takes. TIME!
Usually, by the time a long-term project is planned, iterated and ready for implementation, the associated leaders have often completed their terms and so they step back to let a new bright mind take over. Currently, the turnover process does not allow previous leaders’ completed work to be sufficiently transferred into the plans of their successors.
From this, three main problems arise:
1. Lack of continuity and a path forward
Continuity is the most pressing issue stemming from the nature of one-year terms in the MSU. Incoming student leaders, part-time managers and board members don’t face any obligation to complete or build off of the work of their predecessor. Therefore, they often start things back up from scratch. As a previous Silhouette article showed, the current transition process between past and incoming MSU leaders has led to miscommunication and lost progress. The loss of a plastic water bottle ban in Union Market is one example of how follow-through on long-term planning and large scale projects is hindered by annual turnover.
2. Redundancy and inefficiency
Because things get started and can then fall through the cracks, employees end up doing the same or similar work over and over. This wastes time and forfeits the opportunity to learn from valuable corporate knowledge and experience. For instance, if a service coordinator starts an internal review of the volunteer hiring process but doesn’t have the chance to write a final report, all of their work could disappear with the arrival of their successor. Their successor might then repeat all of the steps that came before the final report. When this happens, it can make everyone’s job less efficient and their work more disjointed.
This gap can happen not just from one year to the next consecutively, but also across several years as well. Back in 2016, then-MSU President Justin Monaco-Barnes banned plastic water bottles sales. Now in 2020, incoming MSU President Giancarlo Da-Ré has the same mission on his platform and will inevitably have to go through similar work all over again to accomplish the same goal. This repetition not only creates redundancy but also takes away time that could have been allocated towards novel initiatives.
3. Negative Impacts on Public Perception
Like with all organizations in politics, the MSU can unfortunately sometimes get a bad rap for not doing enough, or not doing the right things. People will certainly always have the right to their opinion, but I find that mischaracterizations of MSU employees often stem from the same problems identified above. Students see that MSU leaders are starting things without finishing them, and don’t always appreciate that those projects may require multi-year implementation strategies. We need to make clear to our constituents that the MSU does do good work, but the turnover issue can often wash away their impact. Students are entitled to criticisms of leaders or their work, but those opinions should not be based on issues that exceed the control of those leaders.
My take on the solution
We need to strengthen our approach to the transition between MSU leaders and their successors and revamp the transition process so we can pass down resources as well as a plan for how to use them. I want to see better, more comprehensive provision of resources, knowledge, experience, research, planning documents, the works. Things get lost in emails all the time and it can be hard for an incoming employee to understand how a previous leader organized their information. The current transition process, in my experience, lacks congruence with job practicalities. Some positive changes have been rolled out to improve this, like offering employees one week of pay to complete and submit their transition reports, but I’d like to see all employees consistently create folders and planning schemes to ensure their work’s legacy in addition to the transition report. Hats off to those who already go above and beyond, but in my personal transitions to leadership roles, I’ve sometimes felt ill-prepared to take on projects my predecessor began because of insufficient record-keeping.
Other safeguards for long-term planning might include “locking in” some commitments each year from an MSU employee to their successor. With input from the editorial board and employees themselves, incoming employees could be mandated to continue working on 1-2 projects started by their predecessor within the role’s portfolio. Of course, this is not to say that only 1 or 2 projects should continue, but this would formalize the continuity of projects at the discretion of those involved. I believe this would be a feasible start to continuously strengthening project management capacity.
Imagine: you’ve been hired or elected to a new role at the MSU. During your transition into the job, you’re given 1) the flexibility to implement your own ideas and the innovations that got you hired in the first place, and 2) the plans, contacts and timeline for an already started project to continue. This gives you a bit more of that feeling of purpose as well as head start on the great things you can do in your term.
The turnover turmoil doesn’t have to persist; there is so much potential to improve longevity. It all starts with the right transition.