Open Source Policy for Ontario’s Future

An introduction to Ontario 360

Ontario will soon face an election. It will be the province’s forty-second campaign and post-election transition since Confederation.

It comes at a critical juncture for Ontario. We face a number of opportunities and challenges. The issues are diverse and complex.

How should we prepare for the wide-ranging consequences of an aging population? What can be done to better position the province’s economy in an era of technological disruption and rapid change? How we can ensure that economic opportunity is more inclusive and fair? What should be done to improve economic competitiveness and enable more investment, innovation, and job creation? How we can better support marginalized and vulnerable Ontarians? How can we improve the functioning of our democracy in the twenty-first century? And many more.

Toward Big Thinking in the Ontario Election

A project at the University of Toronto aims to develop and disseminate evidence-based public policy ideas for the Ontario election and the transition afterwards.

By: Sean SpeerPeter Loewen in IRPP

Political parties face a tremendous challenge in developing and designing public policies that seek to answer these questions. It is not an easy task. Parties have limited resources and policy capacity and generally lack access to expertise. They of course have ideologies, intuitions, beliefs, and preferences. This plays a central and irreplaceable role in electoral democracy. But it nonetheless represents an incomplete toolkit when building public policies.

This is far from a criticism. Public policy development and design is hard. Estimating the fiscal costs or numbers of possible beneficiaries of a policy is difficult and subject to substantial uncertainty. Determining the distributional effects of a policy or its interaction with existing policies can involve complex modelling and analysis. There are few options for political parties who need assistance or support carrying out this work.

One of the results can be a propensity for risk aversion in the context of election campaigns. Political parties are drawn to vague promises that provide for considerable post-election wiggle room. Growing scrutiny from academics and other policy experts on social media further increases the risk of a policy-related gaffe and in turn can reinforce a tendency to cautiousness.

Where political parties do put forward substantive policy ideas there is potential for errors in modelling, implementation challenges, and poor policy design. This is part of the explanation for inevitable “broken promises” or sub-optimal government policies that follow election campaigns.

The upshot is that the lack of support and capacity available to political parties for policy development is a gap in our democratic infrastructure. It can have far-reaching implications for our democracy and governance. Meaningful debate can be stifled. Poor policies can be enacted. Opportunities can be missed.

Different jurisdictions have various means and methods for supporting policy development by political parties. A 2013 report by the National Democratic Institute sets out case studies on these different models and processes including in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.[1] Some jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom publicly fund considerable policy capacity inside the political parties.[2] Others such as Germany publicly fund think-tanks with clear affiliations with the political parties.[3]

The policy capacity and support for Canadian political parties has been found as lacking. A 2007 study by Carleton University political scientist William Cross on the role of political parties in public policy concluded that parties “are not effective vehicles for policy study and development.”[4] His findings are consistent with our own experiences as a political scientist studying elections and public policies and a former political aide involved in platform development. There is certainly scope for new thinking about how we better support policy development within our political parties, and a better and more informed policy debate in the context of election campaigns.

The federal government has recently expanded the role of the Parliamentary Budget Office to carry out fiscal costing on behalf of the major political parties.[5] This new policy support will be available for the 2019 federal election. Australia’s Parliamentary Budget Office has played a similar role since 2013 – including producing public estimates of the various parties’ election platforms.[6]

Nothing presently exists along these lines at the provincial level. Ontario’s political parties must still develop and design their election platforms with minimal technical assistance and support. Post-election transition could similarly benefit from external, evidence-based analysis and thinking that supports the internal work of the province’s high-quality public service.

Enter Ontario 360.

What is Ontario 360?

Ontario 360 is a purpose-built policy initiative, housed at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, to develop and disseminate evidence-based public policy ideas in the context of the upcoming Ontario election and post-election transition.

The goals of Ontario 360 are to (1) raise the level of policy debate in the context of the upcoming Ontario election and post-election transition, (2) produce an inventory of clear, actionable policy recommendations for the political parties to draw from for their respective platforms, and (3) set out evidence-base analysis and advice to support the province’s next government in its Speech from the Throne, ministerial mandate letters, and over the course of its governing mandate.

The initiative will focus on developing and disseminating evidence-based policy ideas for the various political parties and ultimately the next Ontario government irrespective of which one wins the election. Think of it as “open source” policy recommendations on a wide range of topics relevant for Ontario – including taxes, climate change, education, transit, economic competitiveness, the opioid crisis, and so on. Simply put: We want to make it easier for Queen’s Park to adopt and enact sound public policies in areas that matter to Ontarians.

This objective is key to understanding Ontario 360’s purpose and activities. This is not simply about defining problems. This is also not about “moonshots” such as flat taxes or major, unfunded spending unrooted from fiscal considerations. We want to put forward clear, actionable recommendations in key policy areas that can reasonably survive the political and bureaucratic processes and ultimately move Ontario’s public policy in a positive direction over the next four-year mandate.

A key part of Ontario 360’s modus operandi will be to search for areas of political convergence. Notwithstanding the tendency to inflate partisan differences, our politics are essentially fought between the 40-yard lines. What is notable is not political divergence but rather the large swaths of public policy where we broadly agree. Ontario 360 will aim to exist in this coterminous territory. We will seek to put forward policy recommendations that transcend ideological and political differences. We will demonstrate that our parties and politicians agree more than people think.

It is important to emphasize here that Ontario 360 is independent, non-partisan, and evidence-based. It is a neutral platform for policy experts to put forward clear, actionable policy recommendations to address important public issues. Our advisory council, authors, and SPPG faculty, students, alumni, and supporters do not necessarily endorse or affirm the policy recommendations advanced by the different contributors.

Our only conditions for contributors are that (1) their policy recommendations are rooted in evidence and a dispassionate analysis of the facts as they understand them, (2) they seek out recommendations that can plausibly secure broad support among the various political parties and have a reasonable chance of adoption and implementation and (3) they agree to engage publicly and privately to aid political actors and public servants in the development of sound public policy in the context of the election and post-election transition. This is not about propping up one political party or merely putting good ideas on a website. Ontario 360 will be engaged in the public policy process to support any policy and political voices of goodwill aiming to contribute to Ontario’s public policy debate.

What will Ontario 360 do?

Ontario 360 will support various activities to achieve its goal of better informed and evidence-based policy for Ontario.

We will release three policy papers on (1) fiscal policy, (2) climate change, and (3) social opportunity in April prior to the start of the election campaign. These short papers (what we are referring to as “policy memos”) will provide a basic primer on the issues and then set out three to five concrete recommendations for the parties to adopt. The papers will be produced by experts in their respective fields and reflect a diversity of opinions and perspectives.

We will also release a series of focused policy recommendations in 30 key areas over 30 days beginning on April 1. This “30-on-30” will cover a wide range of topics – including energy, taxes, democratic reform, housing, transit, and so on – and involve a wide range of contributors with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. These 30 releases will come in the form of 500- to 1000-word essays setting out policy recommendations in specific areas. A full list of topic areas and contributing authors will be released over the course of April.

Following the election, we will then choose three of the thirty to develop into full-length papers (similar to the three memos released pre-election) to inform and contribute to the incoming government’s transition. This will enable us to develop and expand upon ideas and recommendations that found resonance in the election campaign and are relevant to the next government’s agenda. We will release these three papers in September in the lead up to the Speech from the Throne and production of ministerial mandate letters.

The pre-election releases – including fiscal policy, climate change, and social policy as well as the 30-on-30 component – will arm the political parties with sensible, independent recommendations for their respective platforms. They will also inform and contribute to the public service’s transition planning for the next government.

The post-election releases will enable us to zero in on the issues and topics that have generated interest in the campaign. It will permit us to focus on these main areas and aim to inform any policy deliberations as the incoming government prepares its Speech from the Throne and ministerial mandate letters.

The overall output will be an inventory of evidence-based policy recommendations for Ontario. We hope that the political parties, Ontario public service, and other policy voices and institutions engage Ontario 360’s ideas and recommendations. This will involve challenging and testing them, refining them based on preferences or needs, and hopefully adopting them as part of an evidence-based policy agenda for the province. Think of it as “open source” policy content rooted in evidence and rigorous analysis and available to anyone interested in Ontario public policy.

Ontario 360 will be present on social media and in traditional media, host events and roundtables, and carry out other activities to share and disseminate our inventory of policy recommendations and to answer questions or address comments about them. We see our role as supporting policymakers as they think through the opportunities and challenges facing the province and the right policy responses as part of the election campaign and post-election transition. Ontario 360 will expire on December 31, 2018, following the incoming government’s Speech from the Throne, its distribution of ministerial mandate letters, and early legislative and policy agenda.

Why Ontario 360 matters

 It has been said that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”[7] There may be political and political economy reasons for political parties to minimize policy issues in the context of a campaign. There are limits to the extent to which Ontario 360 can change these dynamics. Public Choice and partisan influences are ever-present and strong.

But we can provide policy recommendations and technical support to lessen the extent to which a lack of policy capacity reinforces the political impulse in favour of cautiousness. We can arm the political parties with concrete ideas to bring policy expression to their preferences and priorities. We can also support Ontario public servants as they prepare for the post-election transition and carry out long-term policy thinking and development.

Think of this week’s Speech from the Throne.[8] It served as a useful distillation of the opportunities and challenges facing the province and will need to be confronted by policymakers. The future of work, the affordability of child care and post-secondary education, combatting climate change, ongoing budgetary deficits and rising public debt, and health-care reform are just some of the issues that were in the Throne Speech and will also be covered by Ontario 360.

Our principal strength is that quality of the experts and scholars that we can draw upon to bring evidence-based analysis to bear on the key issues facing Ontario in the short- and long-term. Our contributors reflect a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives. This is not about advancing a narrow agenda or perspective. It is about establishing a platform for leading policy thinkers to develop and disseminate policy recommendations in the public interest.

It certainly comes at an important juncture. The breadth and range of issues that will confront Ontario’s next government is significant. The list is long. Even selecting thirty topics invariably leaves several unaddressed. It is essential therefore that the election campaign and post-election transition is focused as much as possible on substantive ideas to realize the province’s many opportunities and mitigate its various challenges. We see Ontario 360’s principal role as contributing to such a constructive and positive dialogue over the next several months. It is needed now as much as ever before. We look forward to the exchange and debate.

Peter Loewen is the director and Sean Speer is a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.