The Blackberry follow-up


Thanks to the handful of people who responded (including emails) to my recent post inquiring about students’ union providing Blackberries to their executives.

The devices are not cheap, and neither are data plans. This makes it hard to justify student unions owning multiple devices. Despite this, all the students unions that I was informed of having them own multiple devices.

I can understand if the students union had one Blackberry which serves as the "on-duty" communicator with an after hours "emergency" email address and phone number that union members can reach for after-hours concerns.

This is not the use that I have seen for these Blackberries. I’ve concluded they  primarily serve the egos of student politicians. (I’ve noted that the places which students unions are paying for Blackberries are the places where the student politicians are self-important.)

Students unions tend to justify the expense by saying their executives have to be reachable 24/7, especially when they are out of the office during business hours.

I now have a list of those with Blackberries. Next time I have a story requiring a student union executive quote, I will send an email to these Blackberries and test to see which student union executives respond in a timely manner.

Here’s my follow-up question. Do any of these student unions make their monthly bills public information? Can students monitor to make sure the student politicians aren’t abusing them for personal use?

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The Blackberry follow-up

  1. An interesting question would be whether blackberries actually increase efficiency and productivity. Maybe I sound like a primitivist by saying that, but when people are not reachable 24/7, it means they:

    1) Plan ahead meetings rather than calling them at the last minute, expecting everyone to read the notice. Also secure some time during the day for e-mails, but avoid them becoming a constant time-sucker.

    2) Focus their energy on one task before going back to check their e-mail, etc. I find it a bit ridiculous to see executive-type people at meetings (like the University Board of Governors) that are typing on their blackberries instead of being focused on the meeting.

    Of course, there are situations (say, if you are travelling) where checking one’s e-mails is inconvenient, but a student union can purchase a laptop for these situations. A laptop is cheaper than a Blackberry (no monthly fee) and free-access wireless points are widely available in major cities.

  2. I had one when I was an exec but it was entirely covered through a sponsorship agreement. It would probably be worth checking which of these are actually being paid for by the student union and not covered in some other fashion.

    I only had one because I was out of the office the most and found I was missing out on what was going on at home, but I was happy to get rid of it when I was done my term.

    If you really want to go on a tirade, why not look into how many unions allow discretionary money or per diems to be spent on liquor?

  3. I’m not absolutely opposed to blackberries, but I’m not sure I agree that sponsorship agreements are somehow exempt from being treated as real money. Under this agreement, did you give some company preferential access to your student members, or else opportunities to market to them? That represents value, which could either be sold separately or else traded for things that benefit students in other ways (such as event sponsorship) rather than a blackberry for your personal use. Conversely, even if no other deal were possible, you’ve still sold some portion of students’ environment to an advertiser. There’s a reason students organize against advertising on campus. People do feel it. That isn’t to say the deal was wrong or that spending on blackberries is a bad idea. But I don’t buy into the “not real money” position.

  4. I agree with Jeff. In fact, in my opinion this is even worse. When student union executives, who can sign a contract on behalf of all their members due to their position, get personal benefits from the company they sign the contract with, it should be rightly seen as a bribe.

    About the per diems, my understanding of them is that they are a fixed amount that you pay people per day to cover meals, for example. The point of the per diem is that it is set as a reasonable amount so that people can eat normal meals, but do not exaggerate. Also, by giving the fixed amount you avoid the trouble of having people submit all their receipts.

  5. I strongly believe that no student politician should be accepting kickbacks in exchange for a corporate contract. I doubt this is what has occurred at UBC.

    Likely, there is an exclusivity or sponsorship agreement in place. I know that Rogers (the parent copy of Maclean’s) has a “corporate ambassador program in place. Rogers pays a student (usually a business student) to be their representative on a campus. The student promotes the brand and Rogers sponsors events as pub nights.

    There are many corporations do this. One of the more annoying things about October at the student newspaper is putting up with all the reps trying to get their corporate sponsored events mentioned in the student newspaper.

    Per diems are an interesting animal. When I was in the military, I received meal allowances whenever I travelled. The breakfast and lunch rates were about $10 each. Dinner was just over $31. I loved it when I had to travel over dinner as I would get the dinner rate and pay about $15 – $20 for dinner. There were times that I only paid $9 for dinner. Whenever I claimed dinner, I had worked during the day and looked as it as compensation for working extra hours.

    If a students union wishes to have per diems instead of collecting receipts, the amount of the per diems and rules regulating them should be public.

  6. I do believe there’s a distinction between kickbacks and sponsorship deals. If, for example, blackberries were something the union had decided to spend on anyway, and came up with a deal to get them instead of spending cash, that isn’t a kickback – it’s just a union perk that’s been arranged via sponsorship. Hence, I treat it as a job benefit that requires just as much justification as a blackberry that’s paid for in cash, but not as something shady.

    Kickbacks to students in positions of responsibility are another thing entirely. This does happen, it’s a big issue, and deserves a lot of attention. Very shady stuff happens especially around student health and dental plans, where there are multi-million dollar contracts at stake. But yeah, it’s still a distinct issue from what I was referencing originally.

  7. Without getting into the philosophical discussions of sponsorship versus not having sponsorship, I should clarify something that I took as a given when I first posted. The union was getting several free mobile phones as one component of a sponsorship deal already and the upgrade to a Blackberry produced no marginal cost to the student society either in terms of a renegotiated contract or direct billing. My point was only to note that upgrades to a Blackberry does not necessarily create a greater cost to the union.

  8. Well it is refreshing that someone who comments on the egos of others is so modest… ;-)

    Oh wait…strike that…Mr. Coleman is so important that he will use his list of those with Blackberries to get in touch with these mighty egomanics because as important as they are, they will no doubt want to answer his call 24/7.

    Give me a break…we’re all egomanics.

  9. I do not agree that blackberries are needed assets to a position. Going through an amount of time in student politics myself, while at the same time being staunchly opposed to even owning a cell phone, nevermind blackberries, I appreciated being able to have some control over my communications, while also being able to appropriately plan ahead.

    However, when it came to the inclusion of these items in the current operational budget, I was surprised to notice that I was pretty much the only one opposed to the idea on the assembly. My term was over in about a week anyway, so it didn’t matter to me, but it was an unfortunate thing to see in my opinion. I guess many people don’t mind the idea, aside from the fact that all too many people see such personal devices (cells, blackberries, etc.) as nearly indespensible to day to day life, including (and as God of Gods pointed out) Mr. Coleman himself. I think I would quickly run out of fingers and toes if I were to count the amount of times I saw Mr. Coleman berating his device (and whoever was on the other end) as if there were no tomorrow and nothing else more important in the world than that phone and his circumstance. As a result of such a mindset concerning the seeming necessity of such devices, I doubt any concern about stu-union execs in the possession of blackberries will even pass beyond this thread, for better or for worse.

    That said, Mr. Coleman’s point (I believe it was his) about it being reasonable to simply get one for the Union and use it as an “on-call” type item for all the staff and exec is pretty sound, and not a bad idea. Although, I would still deliberately find no use for it, I would prefer to agree wholly and completely with Philippe’s above two points.

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