Education is Not Advocacy

November 16, 2015 - I had a fascinating meeting with the then finance minister of New Brunswick several years ago. The meeting has come to mind often in the past two years as I travel about Northern Ontario and explain to people the difference between a think tank and an advocacy group. Or, at least the difference between Northern Policy Institute and the research branch for the “northern lobby”.

The Minister’s name was Blaine Higgs. Higgs was an accomplished fellow before entering politics and had a well-earned reputation for frankness. His staff had asked me to meet with him to explain the relative merits of consumption versus income taxes. New Brunswick was at the time (and still is for that matter) struggling to find a tax mix that would both allow them to support needed programs but also encourage private investment and economic growth.

Higgs started the meeting in vintage Higgs style. He asked me: “So, what do you want?” To which I replied, “Nothing.” The Minister was nonplussed.

EVERYONE who meets with the Minister wants something; everyone knows that, right?  Well, wrong. As I explained to Higgs, my job is to educate people about policy. Ministers, opposition politicians, bureaucrats, partisans, donors, the general public. Whoever wants to learn, me and my team and people like us across the country and around the world are there to teach. If you don’t want to learn or you don’t want to apply what you have learned, or if you think you have nothing to learn, or we have nothing to teach you, that’s your business.

I was there to try and help answer his questions. If he didn’t have any, then I could be on my way. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between education (which is what Northern Policy Institute does) and advocacy (which is what your local chamber, local union, local “save the X” society does).

Here are some basic rules of thumb for you to be able to differentiate between educators and advocators. The rules are not perfect and sheep in wolves clothing abound, and vice versa. But they are a start.

One, advocates ask to meet with you. Educators don’t. You have to invite them to talk to you. You have to want to hear what they have to say. You have to have questions that you hope they can help you answer.

Two, advocates are singularly interested in what is best for them (or their clients) and only secondarily interested in how that might help you or how it might help others. If helping others helps them get what they, or their clients want, that makes their job easier but it isn’t a prerequisite. Educators try to see the unintended consequences and offer a total accounting of the pros and cons of various policy actions.

Three, advocates tell you what your policy idea will do to them (or their clients). Educators tell you whether your policy idea will achieve the goal you say you want it to achieve, and at what cost.

These three rules work reasonably well, particularly in Canada, to help differentiate educators and advocators. Many think tanks cross the line on occasion, some more frequently than others. Many academics do the same thing, some much more frequently than they would care to admit. So it is not surprising that Higgs, and many of the people I have met with in communities across the north, are skeptical.

For this reason, Northern Policy Institute has added an extra layer of protection to ensure we remain answerers of questions, not advocators of pre-set answers. Unique among Canadian think tanks (at least to my knowledge) the research agenda for Northern Policy Institute is set by our interactions with you, our friends and neighbours. All 780,000 (or so) of you.

Every time you send us an email, comment on a blog, come to an event and ask a question, we record it. We monitor a sampling of local, regional, national and international media. Social media, mainstream media and industry and specialty publications. Every three months we tally up what we have heard and read to come up with a top ten list of questions northerners are asking. We then try to make sure the questions we are asking of our researchers align with the questions you want answered.

Don’t get me wrong. We want things too. We are parents, students, employees, drivers, residents, taxpayers, hunters and lots of other things too. We care about what happens in Northern Ontario and we all have our own perspectives about what should happen. But we balance our questions with your questions, just like we balance your questions with the lady down the street who you think is a nutbar. Maybe that sounds crazy to folks like Blaine Higgs, but we think it works.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, October, 2015.

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