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OPINION: Testbed – Northern Ontario

Lessons learned here, and solutions proven here, will help us now and help every Ontarian in the long run.
Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO, Northern Policy Institute

I have said it before and I will say it again: you should be a guinea pig. If you live, work, invest, study or travel in Northern Ontario, or if you are just thinking of doing any of those things, then the government has an obligation to be experimenting on you.

Northern Ontario – with its mix of urban, rural and remote communities, single and mixed economy towns, and strong and weak economic regions – is an ideal test bed for public policy. A place where the people want some serious attention from government. Attention that involves the people themselves in finding solutions that actually work.

Northern Ontario is a group of regions that are remarkably diverse and, yes, comparatively isolated. This makes the identification of impacts from policy experiments much easier to identify, making the findings that much more valuable for their reasonable certainty. Unfortunately, right now we are prisoners of incrementalism. Election to election, one party or another tinkers around the edges, going, in essence, from their bad idea, to your bad idea, to my bad idea, all of which are basically the same idea, because no one has any other ideas.

There is, however, a global and growing acceptance that what we have tried before largely has not worked and that true, scientific method-style policy experimentation offers one meaningful way of breaking the cycle. A few years ago I talked in these pages about the experimentation being done in Finland and the rules being used to make sure it was true, unbiased, experimentation.

Those mandates have now jumped the pond and arrived in Canada. In a document entitled “Experimentation Direction for Deputy Heads – December 2016,” the federal government laid out a mandate for all government ministries to set aside a portion of their spending for experimentation. Not only are they required to set aside a percentage of their program funds, they also must report on their experiments annually as part of their departmental plans.

On Nov. 14, 2017 that enthusiasm for ethical, open, and meaningful experimentation spread further when the federal, provincial and territorial clerks and cabinet secretaries signed a joint declaration on Public Sector Innovation. That document starts off: “To achieve meaningful and lasting results for the people we serve, governments need to work in new and innovative ways with a greater focus on what works and what doesn’t.”

Regrettably, however, not everyone is on board yet with this novel new approach. Just last week I experienced two separate telling exchanges. Both involving very intelligent, highly experienced, very dedicated public servants. Neither of which were all that keen on “wild experimentation.” One used the language of “political feasibility” to constrain what we can or should do in Northern Ontario. The other, going further, using the age old “ignore it, it will go away; mock it, it will be ignored” approach to tamp down firmly on any suggestion that policy experimentation could be a good thing.

So, how do we overcome this ingrained conservatism in our public policy, in our public servants, and in our politicians? My answer is to quote our good friends from Participaction: just do it.

The federal government has made it mandatory for departments to experiment; Ontario has agreed in principle that’s a good thing. So the next provincial government, of whatever political stripe, should designate Northern Ontario as a public policy test bed. Require, as the federal government does, provincial ministries to allocate a portion of their program budgets to experimentation.

Better still, set a minimum percentage and encourage departments to pool their resources for interdisciplinary work. Maybe even create an added pool of funds over and above departmental budgets to incentivize experiments. Dedicate the resources to run proper, open, experiments and report publicly on the results. 

This is the key. Report on the results as they come in, not after they have been cleansed of the ugly unintended consequences. Report especially on the failures. Don’t hide from them; learn from them.

Just do it – we have so much to learn and so many problems still in need of solutions. Lessons learned here, and solutions proven here, will help us now and help every Ontarian in the long run.