Want Good Public Policy? Be Prepared to Be A Guinea Pig!

October 24, 2016 - We know the lament. Northern Ontario is huge in size, small in population. Our urban centres are barely the size of large towns in other regions. A four-hour drive to get to a four-hour drive is the norm. Your cell phone might work right now, or it might not. Our economy is overly dependent on government. Private industry is largely focused in resource dependent sectors. Some of which are under significant competitive pressures as tastes and sensitivities change globally. We hear we are relatively old, sickly, poor and unattractive to newcomers. You get the idea.

Now, much of this is not, precisely, true. No generalization or stereotype ever is. But enough of it is based in reality that it creates a remarkable opportunity for our region to be a public policy leader. That’s right, a leader. You see, our problems are not unique. Poverty, racism, low participation, scarce private investment, environmental abuse all exist elsewhere. What most everyone lacks in many cases are solutions. At least evidence based solutions.

This is where we come in. It is also where our small size and relative isolation work to our advantage. Now, follow me along on this.

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According to Forbes, Finland has recently been “pioneering a form of deciding upon public policy where people actually think through the problems at issue, think about them, consider solutions, test a few of them, then implement the best.”

Test a few of them.

According to one of the key researchers involved in the new Finnish approach these five words are the key. The researcher notes that governments are innovating all over the place, citing examples like the Nudge Unit in the UK and Mindlab in Denmark. But the Finns, apparently, wanted large scale experiments at the policy level. They wanted to not just think about a problem and design a response, they wanted to test it and use the results to refine, or reject, it.

Experiments on a national scale are expensive and, once launched, are extremely difficult to stop. Even when their impacts are negative and well known. But what if a microcosm of your society already exists? In relative isolation from external influences, but at a scale from which valid statistical data could be secured?  Welcome to Northern Ontario.

Of course, we will be told, our governments at all levels are already doing this experimentation. The forthcoming pilot of an Ontario Basic Income being a prime example. With hundreds of others ready to hand.

Here’s the rub. With the possible exception of the Basic Income pilot (and frankly I have my doubts that it will be an exception), government experimentation in Ontario (and just about everywhere else) fails the three-part test of the Finnish model.

Part one is “understanding the problem”. Here is the most challenging hurdle. All too often governments of all stripes and at all levels already “know” what the problem is. Finland is attempting to avoid this bias by institutionalizing the inclusion of both currently available evidence and divergent views in problem definition.

Part two is “implementing experiments”. With an “s”. In Finland, the Prime Minister’s Office is actively exploring how to change the way funding flows so that they can better support multiple different experiments seeking to address the same problem. This is one way to systematically overcome your own government’s bias. Build a system that supports experimentation by others.

Part three is “evaluating the impacts identified”. Here the Finns take open government to heart as few others have. Finland is “creating new platforms for communicating about experiments: sharing information, know-how and related practices.” Hundreds of experts outside of government are ready, willing and able to analyze outcomes and assess costs and benefits. The Finns, it seems, are bringing them into the fold.

Solutions must be found to racism, income inequality, declining levels of education and employment among working age males and a myriad of other issues. We will eventually solve them as we always have, by experimentation. The question is whether we want to accelerate the process by controlled experimentation.

Northern Ontario communities, our demographics and geography are ideally suited to be the laboratory. I, for one, want to be a guinea pig, and I think you should too. 

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute. First published in Northern Ontario Business, October 2016.

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