The Complex World of Policy Making

The first panel of the Max Bell School conference looked at the complexity of the policy making process, from theory to practice.

Two weeks ago, over 200 people converged in Montreal for Better Policy for a Better World, a Max Bell School of Public Policy conference aimed at addressing the gap between the theory and the practice of policy making. The day’s first panel brought together veteran political strategists, all seeking to explain why good ideas aren’t enough.

Moderator Paul Boothe, the Faculty Director of Ivey Business School’s Senior Public Leaders Program, kicked off the discussion by asking the panelists for examples of the things policymakers must-and must not-do to be successful.

As somebody who works on the “applied end” of public policy, Velma McColl, principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, advised policymakers to understand their landscape, to execute with discipline, and to adapt based on the circumstances in which they find themselves. “The one thing not to do,” she said, “is to underestimate the number of people you have to bring along with you” in the process of creating and implementing policy.

Dan Tisch, CEO of Argyle Public Relationships, emphasized the importance of effectively integrating policy with communications. “Good policy badly communicated is bad policy.”

Boothe asked the panel for some specific examples that illustrate the strategies that work and those that don’t work so well. Ivey Foundation president Bruce Lourie pointed to his work phasing out coal in Ontario. First, he reframed the issue by putting a focus on public health and by uniting various environmental campaigns around the goal of shutting down all of the province’s coal-fired power plants. He had research conducted that showed this goal was doable, and then he built a constituency around the issue. Lastly, he played the long game. After 15 years of work, smog advisories had disappeared, greenhouse gas emissions had dropped, and all the coal power plants had been shuttered.

McColl brought up a tactic that doesn’t produce great outcomes. “What doesn’t work is pendulum swings. If you have an issue that’s a long-run issue...if you go into a jurisdiction and are arguing way over [to one side], you stand a very high risk of the pendulum swinging way back.” The cost of this, she argued, is enormous, and it begs a conversation on how extreme policymakers should be in their positioning on key long-term, structural issues.

The panel shifted topics, delving into a conversation on political polarization. Boothe asked the members of the panel whether there was a way to lessen the hostility between people of different political stripes. “It seems like a lot of politics is becoming increasingly polarized: If they’re in favour of it, I’m diametrically opposed to it,” he said.

Ken Boessenkool, partner at KTG Public Affairs, noted that social media has driven people into pockets, but he also suggested the rise of populism is sowing further division. “The populists feed into a narrative, and [they] increasingly use polling to figure out what people want and then find a breezy solution to answer them.” Boothe added that politicians of all types are exploiting division, “slicing and dicing by urban versus income. You know, everybody’s doing it.”

Bruce Lourie explained that the role of bureaucrats in shaping policy over the long term is to figure out what will be good for the country, to identify the way the country is moving, and then to help facilitate that process as smoothly as possible. “What you want to do is get to the point where the pendulum swings less and less each time, to the point where you’re no longer debating whether climate policy is a good or bad thing; you’re debating the margins of how to do it.”

The panel was spirited - and it could have lasted hours longer - but Boothe eventually had to bring it to a close, leaving the attendees with a deeper understanding of the complexities of putting policy into practice, and of why good ideas simply aren’t enough.



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