Fall coursework at Max Bell: one MPP's review

Ian Lupton is a current 23/24 MPP student of cohort 5. A dual Canadian/US citizen originally from Vancouver, Ian has lived, studied and worked in both Canada and the United States. Ian has diverse public sector experience working in legislative, provincial and municipal governments and has a broad range of interests including housing, the design and use of public space, and strategic communications.

It's been a very, very brisk four-and-a-half months in Montreal at McGill's Max Bell School of Public Policy, but I wanted to share a recap of the last few months, sharing some of my experiences, reflections and accomplishments of this intensive, one-year Master of Public Policy program.

After varied and meaningful career experiences in Texas legislative and Ontario provincial and municipal governments, I decided to return to school to build new skills, gain new experiences and broaden my understanding of the public policy landscape and ecosystem. It’s been a tremendous experience thus far. I’ll share some reflections which informed my decision to return to school; highlight some of the coursework and opportunities the MPP program has provided in the first semester; include a bit of colour about my time in Montreal; and share some thoughts about what’s ahead.

I have held a longtime, useful if somewhat blunt, general working definition of public policy, which centres around answers to questions about “who gets what, when and how”. Part of my work at MBS is to test and refine this thinking, which will be a common theme as my studies progress.

Consider the recent kerfuffle around the federal government’s carbon tax exemption to home heating oil targeted to benefit Atlantic Canadians, or the Quebec government’s recent announcement for steep tuition hikes on its English language universities, or the City of Montreal’s fascinating participatory budget program. All three case studies touch on these allocative questions amid other public policy goals. These questions are grounded very much in the who, what, and how of how polities are organized, and how public policy decision-making occurs.

Core course: Comparative Government Structures

Political science professor Narendra Subramanian led a valuable survey of political and policy foundations, including political states and state-formation; democracy and democratization; authoritarianism; social movements, political parties and governance; economic development and social relations; identity politics; accommodation of diversity and inequality and income distribution.

Amidst these broad yet nuanced themes we explored the why of public policy decision-making and some of its influences and outcomes. In particular, I was pleased to re-engage with the work of Theda Skocpol, including her seminal work on welfare states and policy choices around provision of social welfare. I will be mindful of the grounding of the modern welfare state’s history and evolution as a foundation for the relatively large, generous welfare states much of the west provides.

In an unexpected academic highlight, I undertook a deep dive into US Civil War pensions as an early and rare example of a generous US income support policy. Much ink has been spilled on the topic of the American Civil War, and I thought I’d avoided the subject as an undergraduate in Texas, but to find myself engaging with the topic as a graduate student in Quebec some years later was as entertaining as it was informative. Long-term impacts of income supports are difficult to predict. Nevertheless, those imaginative activities and regular calibrations of income programs must occur to ensure programs are meeting individual needs and social policy objectives.

A close look at the circumstances under which governments decide when and how to provide public goods – whether they be 19th century war pensions, or recent pandemic income replacement schemes – centres around these core questions of resource allocation, social goals, organized interest groups, and, of course, political advantage.

This remains true with the provision of other modern public services, whether provincial healthcare delivery or eventual development of a national pharmacare program. Which constituencies will be prioritized, who will pay, and how much?

Policy: Durable? Yes. Flexible? Perhaps. Borrowed? Absolutely.

Milton Freedman frequently observed, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program”. Providing public goods tends to be hard-fought, in part because of finite resources, seemingly endless wants and needs, cleavages in populations and a diverse range of ideas and opinions about priorities, including among those who form government.

In many circumstances, “doing nothing” is often a valid – and attractive – policy choice. That said, once provided, rights and public programs and services tend to become entrenched, quickly and durably. Bureaucratization is a real phenomenon, which is something for governments to be more mindful of. Sunset commissions, though not without their own pitfalls, and other scoping limitations, have a place in public policy discussions and decision-making. Governments need to continue to be more flexible, nimble, and adaptable as the problems they face, and the world itself, becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Another takeaway: While some problems are becoming more “wicked”, many of the core issues faced by societies remain fairly universal, and there are often valuable lessons to be learned from looking elsewhere. One of the leading benefits of public sector work is it is public and therefore non-competitive. Policymakers in Singapore and Austria are happy to share experiences on innovation in housing, for example. Governments in Canada can look to transformative programs to help settle migrants by looking to France, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

Part of the MPP program at Max Bell includes a capstone Policy Lab, where teams grapple with a complex policy question provided by an external sponsor. My team will be looking at the Canadian housing sector in detail and I am confident that we will look to other jurisdictions for innovative, applicable policy interventions which could be part of Canadian solutions.

Core course: Canadian Policy and Political Landscapes

Former journalist and Max Bell’s graduate program director Andrew Potter’s course surveyed some of the many complexities of the Canadian political and policy landscape, including peculiarities of our version of the Westminster parliamentary system; Canada’s approach to multinational federalism; the relationship between the Crown and Canada’s indigenous peoples; and Canada’s strategic situation vis à vis the United States. The course also explored how some of these issues play out in specific policy initiatives, and I had the opportunity to research, consider and write on topics such as the legalization of cannabis; pandemic policies; Canada’s immigration policy; Indigenous reconciliation; national defense, support for Ukraine, and Canada’s Arctic security; as well as polarization, the future, and the question of diclinism.

I left this course with a much more nuanced and fragile picture of Canadian federalism. I was a youngster living in the Canadian West during the Quebec referendum of 1995. To now have the opportunity to live in Montreal is to see culture, language, and identity politics up close, and has been an education in and of itself. The Government of Alberta’s recent exploration of nation-building activities, from its proposal to leave the Canada Pension Plan and form a provincial system (which is proving less popular than perhaps predicted, even to Albertans), to its now-abandoned interest in the possibility of establishing a provincial police force, are not without historical antecedent. That, after years of strained interprovincial dynamics, Alberta is now looking to Quebec for inspiration, proves the adage that politics do indeed make for strange bedfellows.

Tensions between the Crown, courts, caucuses, and Cabinets; questions of federalism and the role national policy plays in federal-provincial-territorial relationships, formally and informally, and some of the history of Quebec language policies and modern language politics all add even further complexity to national policymaking.

Shared and separate areas of policy responsibility are difficult to navigate. Confederation, the pull-and-push between centralization and decentralization, goals of national unity and the role of provinces and territories have made the country a more difficult one to govern.

Provinces and territories are right to insist on subnational solutions to meet the unique character and challenges they face; the federal government is also right to advocate for and implement consistent, national unifying policy that strengthens economic and social ties from coast to coast to coast.

Case study: Rhetoric and Communication of Policy

Public affairs and communications professional Cheryl Oates delivered a lively and fun week-long case study on policy development as a communicative process, one shaped by rhetoric and public discourse, public opinion, advocacy, argumentation, and bias. Coursework included op-ed writing (Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s since-failed attempts to provide publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools); tabletop exercises and simulations; and practical experience crafting messaging around energy policy.

First, good policy has to be thoughtfully crafted, socialized and implemented, which is tough enough on a good day. But that isn’t enough. Good policy has to be known and understood to be legitimated and successful.

As an observation based on my personal experiences, public and third sector organizations can struggle to breakthrough with timely, meaningful, compelling, and relevant messaging about the good work they do. This is in part due to lean budgets in not-for-profit and civil society organizations, natural biases to spend on program and service delivery instead of self-promotion, and narrow audiences.

Negative political messaging and negative media coverage all are far easier sells than affirmative policy debates, which too often do little that is constructive to advancing policy goals. On the other hand, an overreliance on messaging can quickly become a substitute for the more difficult work of thoughtful, impactful policy interventions. This is the tricky balance to getting messaging ‘right’.

Case study: 2022 Trucker Convoy

Former national security advisor Vincent Rigby led a deep dive case study into the highly disruptive pandemic-related protests and blockades which took place in Canada in January-February 2022, the ultimate invocation of the Emergencies Act, and the Public Order Emergency Commission’s final report. (NB: The PECO report is a great read!)

We studied the origins and nature of the protests; the efficacy of government response at all levels, including federal, provincial, municipal and policing decisions; the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act; analysis of the Rouleau Commission; and nuanced discussions about whether the episode reflected a failure of federalism in responding to a complex, varied and multi-jurisdictional national incident.

Analysis rested in text of legislation as well as interpretations of government policy ranging from federal law enforcement, provincial areas of jurisdiction, municipal policing and by-law enforcement; international trade and economic considerations with Canada’s largest trading partners state-side; Charter rights, protections, and limitations; federal-provincial-territorial relationships; communications failures; individual personalities, hiring and staffing decisions, and others. We had tremendous insights shared from key players including representatives from the Federal government as well as the Ottawa Police Service.

Trust is a fragile thing; decisions to suspend fundamental rights are among the most serious that can be made by a democratic government. I remain interested in the historical precedent of the declaration of the War Measures Act by Pierre Trudeau in 1970 and believe the justifiable invocation of the Emergencies Act in 2022 will be a significant part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s legacy -- a topic he hinted at when we met on the MPP Ottawa Trip in November.

Complexity seminar: State Capacity

In a week-long complexity seminar led by Andrew Potter, we looked at the history of state capacity, current efficacy and challenges of states to meet policy goals, despite steady expansion in size and scope of the state.

We were grounded in theory and history of state capacity, delving into intricacies of state-building and analysis of state development patterns. We looked at impacts of state capacity on economic growth and inequality and considered tangible impacts of public policy on societal outcomes, including the increasingly important but too-infrequently discussed topic of trust.

I will continue to reflect on the relationship - and tensions - between slow or negative economic growth, and tolerance for change.

Continuing on the theme of trust, we turned to pandemic controls and management for applied analysis, considering the question of state capacity in Canada and in the context of COVID-19. This provided the opportunity for skill-building in navigating complex, real-world governance challenges, understanding emergency preparedness, response and crisis management from a policy perspective, and grappling with trade-offs and efficacy of policy interventions.

We then considered the future of state capacity, particularly considering changing technology and implications of artificial intelligence. We considered potential paths, evolving and emerging trends, and exercised skills in foresight and strategic thinking.

(For those interested in AI impacts on state capacity, the work of Sam Hammond is particularly of interest, here, here and elsewhere).

Core course: Microeconomics for Public Policy

Under the instruction of economics professor Sonia Laszlo, we examined essential microeconomics principles for public policy, including analysing market behaviour and consequences of government policies, with emphasis on contrasting markets, and examining the case of relatively free markets and the many situations that support a case for government intervention. This work sharpened analytical thinking, provided a foundation for crafting effective policies that meet a range of economic and social goals, and considered economic policy effectiveness.

We explored decision-making by individuals and firms, competition, market power, market failures, tools of government, trade, protection and globalization, labour markets and income inequality, with case studies on Canada’s carbon taxation and rebate scheme, Quebec tuition increases, and other global development economic studies. Policy shapers at all levels must be mindful of contributing to economic environments that foster fair competition and sustainable economic growth, including complex issues related to income distribution.

Professor Laszlo’s thoughtful and intentional work to situate microeconomic principles within a public policy frame were valuable, and much appreciated.

Theory and Practice of Program Evaluation

Evaluation professor Leslie Fierro led a thorough and practical introduction to program and policy evaluation, the evaluative ecosystem, concrete lessons on commissioning and using evaluations, and how to support and sustain effective commissioning, implementation and use of evaluation.

Skill development included creation and analysis of Logic Models, to tangibly map out intricacies and interdependencies of program design and impact. I translated evaluation theory into evaluative practice, with skills-based applied assignments – assessing evaluation capacity, as well as evaluation capacity planning and presentation, and a culminating project centered in a practical RFP writing assignment. This project was an opportunity to demonstrate synthesis of learning, mastery of evaluation concepts, and the ability to craft compelling proposals for impactful evaluations.

I came in something of a skeptic, but am leaving with a newfound appreciation for, and interest in, the value program evaluation can bring to good policymaking.

The fall term at Max Bell has been absolutely filled to the brim with important and stimulating course content, engaging faculty and inspiring colleagues. The time has flown by – my one complaint is that of all the things MBS has put in front of me, the one thing they haven’t is more hours in the day, or more days in the week. I suspect this is one of the experiential learnings about public policy at Max Bell – the ever-presence of constraints, and the need for trade-offs!

Ian Lupton

Previous degree: Bachelor of Arts (Honors), Government, University of Texas Austin

Nationality: American; Canadian

Recent work experience: Executive Assistant to the Deputy City Manager, City of Cambridge; Executive Secretary, Ontario Heritage Trust; Production Assistant, Texas State Legislature


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