Northern Ontario: a place to experiment.

Author:Cirtwill, Charles
Position:Think Tank

I have said it before and I will say it again: you should be a guinea pig. If you live, work, invest, study or travel in Northern Ontario, or if you are just thinking of doing any of those things, then the government has an obligation to be experimenting on you.

Northern Ontario--with its mix of urban, rural and remote communities, single and mixed economy towns, and strong and weak economic regions--is an ideal test bed for public policy. A place where the people want some serious attention from government. Attention that involves the people themselves in finding solutions that actually work.

Northern Ontario is a group of regions that are remarkably diverse and, yes, comparatively isolated. This makes the identification of impacts from policy experiments much easier to identify, making the findings that much more valuable for their reasonable certainty. Unfortunately, right now we are prisoners of incrementalism. Election to election, one party or another tinkers around the edges, going, in essence, from their bad idea, to your bad idea, to my bad idea, all of which are basically the same idea, because no one has any other ideas.

There is, however, a global and growing acceptance that what we have tried before largely has not worked and that true, scientific method-style policy experimentation offers one meaningful way of breaking the cycle. A few years ago I talked in these pages about the experimentation being done in Finland and the rules being used to make sure it was true, unbiased, experimentation.

Those mandates have now jumped the pond and arrived in Canada. In a document entitled "Experimentation Direction for Deputy Heads--December 2016," the federal government laid out a mandate for all government ministries to set aside a portion of their spending for experimentation. Not only are they required to set aside a percentage of their program funds, they also must report on their experiments annually as part of their departmental plans.

On Nov. 14, 2017, that enthusiasm for ethical, open, and meaningful experimentation spread further when the federal, provincial and territorial clerks and cabinet secretaries signed a joint declaration on Public Sector Innovation. That document starts off: "To achieve meaningful and lasting results for the people we serve, governments need to work in new and innovative ways with a greater focus on what works and what doesn't."


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