In public transit speak, “deadhead” is the movement of a transit vehicle without passengers on board. For instance, the time a bus spends driving from the garage to its starting point, or from the end point of its route to its starting point. In a city like Ottawa, where we run one-way express routes into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the afternoon, deadhead is a costly yet unavoidable element of our transit equation. I thought it was a great concept to name my staffer notebook after.
As a staffer, I often feel like a necessary evil in the bureaucratic equation, something that most people would do without if they could, but can’t figure out how to wish away. If transit authorities could magically make their buses appear at their starting point without using gas or putting mileage on those axles, they would. If City Hall could magically make staffers disappear while maintaining a 100+h workweek for its municipal councillors, it would. The only reason we are tolerated is because we help maintain the illusion that elected officials can singlehandedly read hundreds of pages of reports, sit on 4 committees plus City Council, answer the phone, solve their constituents’ problems, cut ribbons and wrangle stakeholders.
Last December, I started working at Ottawa City Hall for a municipal councillor. Personel attached to a politician are often called “staffers”. In Ottawa, “staffers” are not to be confused with “City Staff,” the public servants and bureaucrats keeping the machine going. It is no coincidence that the two jobs I found after spending several years at home were staffer jobs, one for a federal politician in 2008 and one for a municipal politician in 2018: staffer positions are entry-level positions that require no other background than getting along with your boss. We are hired and fired at our boss’ will. Our salaries come out of each politician’s office budget, along with swag, pens and paper, printers and newspaper advertizement. This is not only a pay mechanism, it is an adequate reflection of our relative importance in the hierarchy of the City. At best, we are something less valuable than furniture. At worst, we get shit thrown at us and get fired for being in front of it. In meetings we have no name, no identity, no claim to a chair or an introduction. (As I was writing this in the cafeteria — no word of a lie — a municipal councillor I meet several times a week walked past me and gave me a blank stare of non-recognition when I said Hi…)
Because staffers are poorly paid, mostly young, and often of questionable ability, the turnover rate among political staff is high. We do not have any recourse if we are treated unfairly: we signed-up to be hired and fired at will. For someone like me, it has been mosly an advantage. I am smart, usually competent, and able to get along with anything with a pulse. What I lack is a resume and work experience beyond “raised 9 live children, no face tattoos.”
I am, essentially, deadhead.
But that’s not how I see myself. I was lucky to be hired by a phenomenal municipal councillor, along with two other spectacular woman. My colleagues make me want to be better every day. We are working in a collaborative environement, supporting one common mission and each other. Within the confines of my office, I don’t feel like an entry-level minion. I feel like a trusted advisor, someone’s whose ideas and talents are valued and used to their full capacity. My push back on some of my boss’ ideas is as appreciated as my support and I have yet to execute a direction I didn’t agree with. When my boss and I disagree, we hash it out, argue, convince each other — or vice-versa — and move on. This is a rare work environment where we are building trust one good decision at a time, like a row-boat moves forward one stroke at a time, as long as both rowers are paddling in the same direction at the same time.
This collaborative environment where ideas are shared freely has caused me to dig deep into municipal policy and planning. I have a Master’s Degree in law: I am naturally inclined to get into the weeds. Urban design is an ongoing invitation to geek-out on just about anything. I am driven to keep up with the conversations happening around me, even when I sit unnoticed and silent. It can be hard to keep my mouth shut and I am chomping at the bit more often than not. I am often writing emails I never send and piling on notes no one will ever read. My hope is that sharing my thoughts on this blog will help me manage my restlessness and form ideas that are my own in this new space I just created.
Welcome to my notebook.