Five Good Ideas ®
Five Good Ideas to influence public policy
Published on 26/01/2022
What are the best ways to influence governments and change public policy? In this Five Good Ideas session, Matthew Mendelsohn, a public policy entrepreneur, researcher, strategic advisor and public sector executive, provides an overview of lessons he has learned during his time in government, advocacy, consulting and policy think tanks on the best ways to influence the decisions governments make.
Five Good Ideas
- Political science matters – interests, institutions, ideas, identity, and incentives all constrain outcomes
- Understand the political process, the bureaucratic process, and the issue
- Relationships and trust are capital
- Stories matter to help frame problems and solutions
- The announcement is the end of the beginning – details and implementation matter
- David Evans and Markus Goldstein: 8 lessons on how to influence policy with evidence – from Oxfam’s experience.
- Overseas Development Institute: 10 things to know about how to influence policy with research.
- Antje Dun: How to frame issues for social change impact.
- Pedro Barata: Five Good Ideas for getting your issues on the public policy dance floor
- Sherri Torjman: Five Good Ideas about policy
Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth McIsaac: While many of you are calling in from across Canada, and I can see that from the registration and from the chat, I’m speaking to you from Toronto. I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we’re meeting and connecting virtually today, I would encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13, with the Mississaugas of the Credit, and the territory is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Ojibway and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.
So, today’s session. What are the best ways to influence governments and change public policy? We know that this is the big lever for change. In this Five Good Ideas session, Matthew Mendelsohn, a public policy entrepreneur, researcher, strategic advisor, and public sector executive will provide an overview of lessons he has learned during his time in government. In his time doing advocacy, consulting, policy think tanks, all of this brings to him a number of great ideas. We’re going to push the bar. It’s more than a good idea, on the best ways to influence the decisions that governments make.
Matthew has been using public policy to deliver economic and social impact for 25 years. He’s currently a visiting professor and co-founder of First Policy Response at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a senior advisor to Boston Consulting Group’s global public sector practice. For his full bio, plus his ideas and resources, please download the handout in the chat. It is now my pleasure to welcome Matthew.
Matthew, over to you for five, I think I upped the ante, five great ideas.
Matthew Mendelsohn: Well, I can just borrow some of your ideas. Liz always has excellent ideas.
So, thank you very much to Maytree and Elizabeth for having me. The Maytree community is one that I’ve been involved with, not quite 25 years, but for a long time. And I have lots of friends and colleagues who’ve done extraordinary work in the Maytree network and of course at Maytree itself.
And I’m just watching the chat as people log on, and I’m seeing lots of old friends and colleagues, and people I’ve worked with. And some I haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years, so hello to everyone and thank you for continuing to log in Zoom during COVID, and do these kinds of things virtually. And I’m looking forward to seeing people in person really, really soon.
So, a couple of caveats before I begin my five ideas. I’m channeling my mother there.
My mother would say, Your ideas … They’re not so good. So, I’ll lower the bar a bit from what Liz did, but two caveats. And the first is just to say, and I’ll say a lot of these things throughout my talk, and they’ll come back in various ways. But in a public policy process, you cannot control the outcome. You cannot guarantee success. So, this has no money back guarantee. I’m sure tickets were very, very expensive, but I’ve been in government on three different occasions and I’ve lost 100 debates in government. And even in government, people cannot always influence the outcome in a way that they want.
And so what I offer today are some thoughts to professionalize your approach to political engagement, to lobbying, to pressuring governments both bureaucratic and political, and increasing the likelihood of success over time for you and the organizations you work for and the issues you care about.
But in politics, in government there are no guarantees, and I know everyone knows that, but it’s just important to state how complex the political and government environment are. How difficult it is to make big change and sometimes even small change, and how many different things have to align to have positive, progressive change take place. And so I just wanted to highlight that first.
The other thing I wanted to highlight is, although I’ve worked with not-for-profits in the past in a variety of different ways, I’ve never really thought of myself as an activist, and I’m not going to be speaking in that context. I’m really going to be speaking about how policy professionals, people who run organizations might try and undertake political engagement through very traditional processes, and how to think about those. And that in no way is the only way to go about trying to influence change. Change from my perspective takes place in all kinds of different ways.
And usually big change requires a variety of different things to, as I say, align, but different kinds of pressures. So, political mobilization, trying to influence public opinion, activism. These all likewise have enormous impact and they can have enormous impact on public opinion. Likewise, they can have enormous impact on political parties or decision makers, and all of those efforts at activism, at protests, at mobilization, at social media campaigns, at communications efforts, all of those things are likewise important, but those aren’t particularly my areas of expertise or experience. So, those aren’t going to be the ones that I’m going to talk about, but the heading is ideas for influencing public policy. And I just want to be very clear that these are the ones that I’m landing on through my professional and personal experiences. And there’s a whole other kind of way to try and influence policy that can be more impactful in certain circumstances, and is equally valid and valuable.
So, my five ideas.
1. Political science matters – interests, institutions, ideas, identity, and incentives all constrain outcomes
The first one, this is the napping portion of my talk, where people can use the washroom or get tea, unless someone wants a little bit of a primer or a recap on their intro to poli sci class. But I like to say that political science matters because as professionals engaged on policy issues, we have very often quite expert views on childcare or poverty. And it’s really important to remember that the kinds of things we know about political science are still there, and simply winning the argument isn’t a guarantee of outcome. Instead, you do have to think about the interests of the political actors. Bureaucrats have different interests than political parties. And not just the bureaucrat at large versus political parties, but different departments. Many of the things that I’ve been involved with over the years–Natural Resources Canada; Innovation, Science, and Economic Development; and, Environment– three different ministries had different interests.
And the public servants had different results that they were trying to achieve, different outcomes, frameworks that their ministers or managers were expecting different stakeholder networks, different areas of expertise and professional knowledge, and those are all valuable. So, it’s important to think about the interests of the people you’re engaged with. It’s important to think about the institutions and how change takes place. How change takes place at a city government is different than a federal government, and it’s important to be thinking about how all of these issues are mediated by institutions.
Having said that, ideas matter, good ideas matter, but likewise, good ideas are often heard and mediated through the identity of the person that you’re speaking to. And I think increasingly tribal identity, tribal connections are mediating so much of our communication and how people are interpreting the world. And that’s no less true of the people you are engaging with. And it’s important to acknowledge that as you move forward.
And I’ll call this a political science term, economists may differ, but likewise incentives matter. And it’s important to try and frame your ideas in ways that recognize the incentives and the incentive structures, and the constraints of the actors that you’re talking to.
Some people say that every policy is to some extent about tradeoffs within the context of constraints. And when I was in the federal government at Privy Council office four or five years ago, at this time of year we’d be going into a budget process. And ministers would send budget letters to the minister of finance and the prime minister with their goals for the upcoming budget. And obviously if it had been something that was in the platform, or in a speech from the throne, or something that had already been announced, it’s more likely to be accepted.
But having said that, ministers would send in a list of things that they were interested in achieving. Many of the people on this call I know would have had things that ESDC or Heritage or Environment were kind of flagging and saying, we’d really like to get these kinds of things in the budget. We’d like money allocated for these kinds of things. We’d like the budget for this program increased. And in 2017, 2018, there may have been eight or nine times more asks than were able to be met.
And so I mentioned that just to highlight that there are always lots of good ideas, and lots of good ideas that the ministers want. Liberal cabinet ministers were saying, we want this kind of fund for poverty reduction, or we want this kind of fund for social impact.
And at the end of the day, politicians make choices about trade-offs given existing constraints. And that doesn’t mean the idea is bad or that it won’t come back next time. But it also means that having key strategic focus is useful.
And a minister who had one big ask and one small ask was more likely to get those than a minister who had 36 asks, a bunch that were large and small. So, just thinking about all of those real-world political science things as context to when you go and try and influence some decision.
2. Understand the political process, the bureaucratic process, and the issue
The second idea, I’m not sure these are ideas. My mother may have been right. The second idea that I think is important to advise people, and I often help not-for-profits who are trying to advance things that they care about. And it’s really important, and many of these things might be obvious, but as someone who has been a deputy minister in two different governments and has met with lots of different stakeholders, it’s surprising how often these things are not internalized.
It’s really important to understand the political process, understand the bureaucratic process and understand the issue. Same to people, you should know your stuff, seems pretty simple, but I have been asked for things that already exist.
And that’s because it’s a small thing and it was in a budget two years ago, but on multiple occasions I have been asked, why doesn’t the government do more, doesn’t do X. And I would say, well, we actually did X three years ago. And someone who was involved in the issue was not aware of that.
It’s really important to know when decisions are made. And it’s really important to understand who is making decisions. And that doesn’t mean just kind of a final arbiter, but is this going to be a bureaucratic process where you want a director, and an ADM, and a deputy to be signing off on a particular strategy and convincing a minister, because it’s about changes to a program.
It’s often the case that in political bureaucratic processes, departments own pieces of legislation, they own policies, they’re responsible for those changes. Sometimes it’s not always intuitive. The government has announced a net accelerator fund to help industry achieve net zero by 2050. It’s not obvious unless you look that that’s going to be at Innovation, Science and Industry with Minister Champagne, rather than with Jonathan Wilkinson at Natural Resources or with Steven Guilbeault, Environment. And they will clearly be involved, and their departments will be involved. But the lead minister as articulated in mandate letters is the Minister of Innovation.
And so it’s just important to understand that bureaucratic context, what the system is like. And it’s also important to understand that sometimes windows of opportunity will occur. So, I do not think that over the last two or three years, any of the incredible, talented, hardworking people who’ve been involved in pushing for national childcare over decades, I don’t think any of these researchers and activists and engaged policy people, have said anything new over the last three years that they didn’t say 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Some of the data has been updated. But a window of opportunity opened up.
And I mentioned that just because it’s really important when I say that you don’t control outcomes all of the time, to not be discouraged by that. To understand that simply because you didn’t achieve what you wanted this time, and I’ve been there inside and outside, doesn’t mean you won’t achieve something next time.
And it’s important to think strategically about how you accept that defeat at a particular moment, and still understand the context and look for windows of opportunity, or signals, or changes in the environment that might be possible to step through. It’s also important to understand what incremental progress looks like.
Right now from my perspective, and there may be people on this call who disagree, I’ve been seeing lots of incremental progress around housing policy. I’ve been seeing incremental progress from the provincial government around employment standards.
Again, that doesn’t mean that everyone is getting what they want or what is ideal, but it is important to think strategically about a particular outcome that you’re trying to achieve, but other progress that could occur along the way.
I think it’s really important again, when talking about understanding the process and the issues, to understand the details of what you’re engaged with, the position of opponents, to understand studies. I’ve been in meetings where someone was asking for something and then an enterprising public servant or political staffer said, “Have you seen this study which shows that there’s a better way of achieving a particular outcome, and the thing you’re asking for isn’t the best thing?” And if the person knows that study and can engage with it and refute it or accommodate it, that’s obviously much more effective than not being aware of those kinds of things.
So, the details matter. It’s important to understand the process, important to understand the detail, important to understand the issues that you’re dealing with.
3. Relationships and trust are capital
The third piece I wanted to talk about, and this is important to me, and this is how I’ve managed a lot of my professional career and it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. But I think it’s right for most people, which is that relationships and trust are long-term capital. And sometimes you have to abuse those or break those. Sometimes you have to call someone out, but you have to be careful about how you’re doing it in such a way that you can remain a trusted partner.
And without being sycophantic, I do think Maytree has made enormous impact over decades on a huge number of really challenging issues throughout its arc on immigration, refugee, immigrant employment, housing and poverty. It’s kind of an arc of progress that Maytree has really had an extraordinary impact on. Often critical of government, often critical of governments that were largely aligned on some issues with Maytree.
So, progressive governments or progressive parties, but Maytree has managed, I think, to be critical, constructive, but trusted. No one ever thought it was personal, no one ever thought they were being burned, telling something in confidence. While we’re kind of working on this, we’re working through, here’s where we’re at, can I get your advice on it? And then you find out it’s in the newspaper the next day. I mean, there are lots of ways to maintain relationships and build trust and capital over time, but from my perspective being able to be a trusted voice and a trusted source and someone that governments call when they need help, or need advice, or are trying to move forward.
Some of the things that the federal government was involved with over the last number of years around poverty and housing, for example. Certainly there would be lots of people who had been critical of the government, had been critical of progress that had been made over time, but who were nonetheless doing it throughout in a constructive principled way without making things personal if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted in a particular budget cycle, or a particular policy decision. And then they become people who can be called on when it’s time to take the next step, or it’s time to make more progress or it’s time to move forward on a national childcare approach.
And that’s just something I’ve always valued. The long-term investment of trust and relationship capital, given that we are a quite small country and certainly quite small and certainly quite small in the policy community.
4. Stories matter to help frame problems and solutions
The fourth thing I wanted to talk about was that for a lot of people, stories matter more than evidence or data, and stories are really useful to help frame problems and solutions. It’s important to think about your audience and who that is, for some stories will be less important. But for many people fixing a real person, a real story, a real community is going to be more important than the data.
That doesn’t mean that the data or the evidence are not important. But the other piece that I’m highlighting here related to the part about stories is about articulating a real problem.
And certainly for public servants, part of the way they do their work, we do our work, I’ve been a public servant many times, is to think very clearly about what a problem is, what the policy problem is, what the policy levers and tools are.
Again, referring back to understanding the process. Sometimes a particular government doesn’t have the tools to deal with things. I’m going back a bit here. Sometimes federal government, I’d be asked for clearly something that is a provincial or municipal matter. That obviously happens much more with politicians at the door, but it’s really important for public servants to think about, is there a policy problem? Are there viable solutions? Do I have the tools to deal with them? What are those levers? How easy are those levers to pull?
And sometimes my experience has been that the most successful lobbyists and I use lobbyists in the most generic, positive way. People who want something from government. The most successful lobbyists are the ones who are articulating a real specific policy problem that becomes clear to either politicians or bureaucrats, and for which they have a proposed solution that is actually actionable.
So, I would encourage you to think about your space where you’re working. What is the problem? Is government able to solve it or at least address it? Think about who is impacted. What are possible outcomes? What does success look like? What does success look like three or five years from now? That’s partially why sometimes people have targets, whether those are climate change targets or poverty reduction targets, because you’re creating a story and an image of a more positive and better future. I had a very specific example of how the visualization and the story can be very impactful.
A couple of weeks ago, I was doing another talk like this. This is only four or five days ago. And we had just gotten a puppy. I have a puppy who’s now been with me for five days. And I showed the puppy to introduce the puppy and then the puppy disappeared. And no one has any recollection of what the talk was about, what the seminar was about. Everyone remembers the puppy. I’m not going to do that here, because I think my ideas are mad, but you have to try and remember them.
But people remember visuals, they remember puppies, they remember the various specific, tangible examples. It’s also important to remember in that context, that audience matters as well. Because for politicians, you may be focused on a political solution whereas for some other people, you may be focused on a policy solution. Sometimes you might want to talk about particular solution in ridings, in regions. In Ontario right now I’m working with a group that is trying to influence the Ontario government on something that… The Ontario government, the current Ontario government could go either way on politically.
And they are very focused on, this will have a kind of impact on these four ridings and those four ridings matter. And here’s how it will be viewed in those ridings. And so that’s a kind of visual and a story, but it’s a political story for them. And for some audiences that matters, for some audiences, it obviously doesn’t.
But you should think out the impact of what you’re talking about for various audiences and be very aware of who you’re talking about. And then just returning to the other three ideas, think about their incentives, think about their interests. Think about, do they have tools and levers? Because if you understand their interests and if you understand the process and the levers, do they have the ability to execute on that? Is this the window of opportunity where they can execute on that. And this obviously is one.
And that connects a bit to my kind of preface or introduction about activism as well. I mean, at this time, this may be a time when you can’t make progress with a particular government, or that this particular government is not interested in your solution, but now is a time to try and influence opposition parties. Or it’s a time to engage in activism, and mobilization, and communication strategies, and public opinion mobilization and trying to have a broader impact on public opinion. Because the government isn’t going to choose what you are proposing to them, but you can create or try to create a more conducive public opinion environment.
5. The announcement is the end of the beginning – details and implementation matter
The fifth thing that I wanted to talk about is something I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with over the last six or seven years.
And that is simply that the announcement of a policy change or spending announcement or a budget commitment is really the end of the beginning. So, if you have specific goals that you’re trying to achieve, I think there was certainly a time when a private sector firm, individual, not-for-profit, got the minister and prime minister at a press conference making an announcement or having a commitment in the budget, that there’s kind of a sigh of relief. And obviously there should be, and obviously people should be proud or congratulate themselves and feel good about having achieved a particular milestone. But I do think that that is the end of the beginning. That getting a commitment publicly from a minister, getting particular language in an election platform that the winning party has been successful at, getting an announcement in speech from the throne or a budget commitment. There are a whole bunch of things that happen after that, that are really important.
And that doesn’t mean that a commitment in an election platform or a commitment in a budget isn’t genuine and sincere, and that there isn’t a genuine commitment to implement. But often there are details that remain very uncertain or vague. And even if you can land on all the details, there’s often implementation realities and challenges.
And that again, returns to the question of being a trusted partner and having relationships that over time, once an announcement takes place, are you someone who political staff, bureaucrats, mid-level bureaucrats who are running the file? Are you who someone who will be called and saying, well, we’ve done the announcement, but we’re trying to work out some details. Do you think this will work better or that will work better? And those things happen. Those things happen all the time. And so I think it’s important that you keep that in mind.
I mean, I’ve been involved in so many issues where, even if you get through an announcement, you get through a cabinet process. I mean, you can think about from announcement or budget announcement, so there’s money in it, there still has to be a cabinet decision that might have lots of details associated with it.
And again, just thinking of this as cascading. The main policy details may be worked out in a cabinet submission, but then you get to really nitty gritty details in a Treasury Board submission, which really talks about implementation issues and execution issues, and real detailed pieces. And I mean, there are people on this call who know all of this, who’ve been through things over the last number of years. And you know that the housing benefit, or the social finance fund, or the carbon price, or right now how one regulates online platforms.
I mean, the Government very sincerely has introduced legislation on a number of occasions federally, on online platforms, online hate, disinformation, and hasn’t been able to get it across yet. Hasn’t been able to get it through the House and the Senate, and there are all kinds of reasons why that happens. But certainly sometimes it’s maybe we don’t have the details right yet, maybe we have a clear direction that we’re really committed to and everyone’s happy with, or at least enough people are happy with, but we’re not getting the details right.
And so again, it’s really important that you stay focused on your issues, that you stay informed about progress on your issues. And again, that connects to relationships. Once the social finance fund is announced, do you have someone who you can call a month later, two months later? I mean, my advice is usually minister staff, like the policy person in the minister’s office, the minister who’s responsible.
And if you have a relationship with them, they may email you back or call you back just to say, is there progress? What’s going on? Can we help? Sometimes there isn’t. And all of these things matter.
And when I was a public servant in government, a lot of energy was spent in the first year of the Trudeau government implementing a large number of high profile commitments–the Canada Child Benefit, CPP enlargement–that I think align not necessarily with the human rights approach, but certainly align with and made significant progress on a lot of the things that Maytree cares about.
But there was also a lot of energy devoted towards cannabis legalization, which was an enormous challenge for all kinds of reasons. And there are about 25 of us that would meet every week from 12 different ministries, political staff and bureaucrats dealing with all of the various implementation issues that go from taking an illegal product to making it licensed, legal, regulated.
And the thing that was interesting about that was that there were a variety of trusted partners in the cannabis legalization discussion, that once the announcement had taken place were less interested in getting involved in the details. While there were a whole other group that were incredibly interested, and they shaped a lot of the outcomes more than the ones who were happy about kind of the commitment.
And it was clear that the government was moving forward, and sure they may have had preferences, but they weren’t speaking to political staff at the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Public Safety, and the Attorney General’s office, and working through the details about how this market and product and regulation would work. So, everything is about trade-offs and constraints, and probably most people on this call have a variety of trade-offs and constraints in terms of their time, and resources, and capacity.
And clearly if you have more time and resources, you can follow the ongoing details of a cabinet submission process. I mean, it’s secret, but you can be talking to people about, beyond the announcement, what it’s going to look like, the Treasury Board process, what implementation is going to look like. And then on the ground, the details of implementation. How is this actually going to work? How is this actually going to be delivered? Is it going to be delivered by third parties, like organizations in the not-for-profit sector? And if it is going to be delivered by organizations in the not-for-profit sector, what does that look like? What does the grant and contribution program look like? What are the details? Who’s eligible? How much can you ask for? Can you stack it on top of other grants that you may have received?
What is the administrative burden? I mean, all of these questions, I know people on this call and I deal with on a regular basis when trying to work with government programs. Is the grant and contribution program the right one? Is the results framework the right one? What results do I need to announce? Can I subcontract with others in the not-for-profit sector if I’ve received a grant? All of these issues are ones about how the program is going to be administered and actually delivered on the ground. And those things matter. And sometimes as you know, those can take years from an announcement to when someone in a community is actually delivering a program. But in that interim, organizations in the not-for-profit sector have an enormous capacity to influence what those things look like.
Yes, in the province and in the federal government sometimes it can be a little bit distanced, and the bureaucrats are doing their thing, and that’s true, but you can still have influence. And likewise, certainly in the city with municipal governments from announcement to implementation. The window is usually narrower, which is good, but you can have an enormous impact. And those things will affect your quality of life and your ability to deliver your programs.
So those are, I think, my five good ideas. I wrap up just the way I started, which is to say all of this implemented, executed to perfection, I have never done that. But if someone were able to do that, it still is a highly unpredictable, volatile environment and you can’t guarantee outcomes.
And there are a whole bunch of other ways to try and influence public opinion and public policy through mobilization, and engagement, and activism. But I think for when you do want to engage with government politically and bureaucratically, and political parties as well. When they’re in opposition or when they’re in government, it’s obviously easier when they’re in opposition. I think this is a kind of structure and framework of ideas and lessons that might help you be more likely to be more successful achieving your goals. So, that’s it. Thank you.
Question and answer period
Elizabeth: I don’t want to be the one to say it, but your mother was wrong.
Matthew: Oh, I say it all the time.
Elizabeth: So, the first question out of the gate, of course, is when are we going to see the puppy. But we’re going to pass on that for now because we’re going to stay focused on public policy.
There’s a number of questions that have come in that sort of surrounded your second point, around understand and know the political process, the bureaucratic process. And in particular, those two processes and how do they interact?
And so the first question was a little bit about, for the first 20 years of trying to influence government, I spent a lot of time meeting with ADMs. When I was trying to influence government more recently, I spent a lot of time meeting with ministers and political staff. Was I doing it wrong 20 years ago? Has it migrated or is it always a case of back and forth?
And then a related question I think, and it’s a little bit of the same, but also the up and down. Who do we seek influence with? Do we go to the top? Do we go to the bottom? Is it both? Do we try to get the minister and the deputy, or do we go for others? Who do we do this with best?
And I think it’s going to be a little bit of all of the above, but over to you, how do you read the intersections of those things both across the channel, and up and down?
Matthew: So, as you say, Elizabeth, it obviously is everything or both, or it depends, or its context or different issues or different approaches. And you have to think about your issue, and your strategy and the best way to do it. And there’s not a simple answer, but a couple of considerations to offer my perspective.
I do think that the move towards more detailed platforms, the Ontario government last time was a bit different and the Ford government was kind of thin on platform. But there has certainly been a move in most provinces and federally for parties to have pretty specific and detailed platforms that reflect their values and approach to government. And so those are political decisions.
And then certainly with the federal government now, but previously with Ontario government and some provincial governments, public mandate letters. Like a public mandate letter, if there is a mandate letter that’s public or something in a platform, you don’t have to go to the minister and say, you should really, introduce a price on carbon.
The Liberal government then knows they want to introduce a price on carbon. Then the question is, what are those details and how are those going to be worked out? This is particularly complex, but if you are a think-tank in the environment and climate change space, you want to be talking to political staff and you want to be talking to, I would say, mid-level public servants who are running those files. You want to help the directors, maybe the ADMs understand those files. The deputy may be, and certainly the political staff and you want to say to the political staff, okay, I know you’re moving forward on a housing benefit, and you’ve made a commitment to that. Here politically to the minister staff, to their policy director, here are the things to think about. Here’s why it matters. Here’s where it can get screwed up.
Your goal is to reduce housing insecurity in these kinds of ways. You’ve already announced that politically, you don’t have to convince Minister Duclos or Minister Hussen that they’ve got to do that. But you want to talk to their staff and say, here are some risks that are going to be there. And then you have that conversation with the directors in the ADMs as well and saying, we’ve been working on these issues for 10 years, here’s what we’ve learned about them. So, it depends. That’s kind of my answer on it. I think there has been an evolution and a change. Technical issues are always better with bureaucrats, political issues are always better, and those are different conversations as well, right?
If you do the housing benefit this way, housing activists are going to be upset and you’re not going to get the win, right? So, you think you’re getting a win. These are your people, your stakeholders, you think you’re accommodating them if you do it this way. Sometimes I hear the bureaucrats are encouraging you to do it this way. If you do it this way, that’s going to be a problem and you’re not going to get the win that you wanted to do. So again, this is all contextual and situational, but I certainly think the person who asked the question has been doing it right.
Elizabeth: Okay. We’ve got a lot of questions. I apologize to everyone in advance. We’re not going to get to everyone’s questions. I’d like to just press a little bit on, because of your extensive experience inside the bureaucracy. We know that there are people who are experts within the bureaucracy, who have good ideas, who have ideas that may not come to light under a certain political context. Are there ways that civil society can be a helpful partner to them? Because the bureaucrats can deal with the politics in a certain way, and are there ways that civil society should be creative about creating that alliance and pushing ideas out?
Matthew: So, I’ll give that answer that I will say to people who are really looking to have medium-term influence on a particular policy issue. And that is, developing relationships with people with expertise in the public service is a good, long-term investment. And if you are developed with senior advisors, like in the province, like ex-1s, like people who are just starting in the executive stream as managers, but also policy advisors who are doing policy work and who have particular a file, and they’re doing the housing file and their expertise is on education or whatever it is, and they’re not getting traction for whatever reason.
Having them have a community, people who support them, going to conference, going to seminars, sharing ideas and information. Like I know that people who do environment work, or natural resource management work and who are expertise in that, are very engaged often in scientific community, in a research community, and communities of networks and stakeholders. Even if they’re not finding traction in terms of where they would like to see the government go, but they may have influenced later, but just as human beings, it’s good to support them as part of an ongoing policy community that shares certain beliefs and there are lots of ways to engage them and share information and research with them.
And in some governments, they can publish, they can speak at conferences. It depends on the government and how politically charged they’re going to be. But on technical issues, they often can speak at a seminar or a conference. There’s no harm engaging and see what happens.
Elizabeth: This is a question of the moment. COVID has brought on very different circumstances and unpredictable futures. How would that impact the five ideas you’ve talked about? How has this context of, certainly in the first year, very rapid policy making stuff happening in real time, how have you seen that affect some of the stuff you’ve mentioned?
Matthew: I mean, that’s an interesting question and I haven’t thought of this presentation in that context. So, that’s an interesting question. I’m always hesitant to just off the top of my head on a question I haven’t thought of.
But I’ve written about some of this, not that question particular. And the reality is that all of the windows are sped up during COVID, and a lot of the rules are broken. So, a lot of the usual processes and timelines that I’ve talked about, cabinet submission, Treasury Board submission, long lag times between decisions. A lot of that has clearly broken down. I think generally government’s way too slow, and it’d be good to eliminate half of the processes anyway. But we’ve sped things up.
And so how it intersects with the five ideas I’ve talked about, I think it does mean that the question of trust and relationships becomes even more important. I know lots of people who are outside government, who were called a lot over the last two years, less so this year?
But in that first year, people were freaked out, right? I mean, it’s so important and I know everyone on this call knows it. But ministers, politicians, political staff, bureaucrats are regular people, mostly really smart, mostly focused on the public interest, mostly trying to help their fellow citizens. And this was unprecedented, right? And so they’re freaked out and they want to do the right thing, and they understand the impact, and they’re trying to understand a volatile, rapidly changing environment. And so they call people who they trust and say, okay, we’re thinking about the CERB, and we’re going to do this income support.
Does this make sense? Does it not make sense? What’s going to happen? Should we have more accountabilities? And then someone will say, yeah, you could have more accountabilities, but then you’re going to miss out on all of these people. And so you’re probably better off, yes, some money will go out the door that you’ll never get back to people who probably shouldn’t have had it, but that’s a better outcome than if you do all of these things, because then you’re going to miss out on a whole bunch of people. And here’s how you might structure it, and here’s how you might reduce risk. And so I just think that on that piece, people who were trusted over the last decade had a lot of impact that no one will ever really know about, right?
Which calls were made by which minister at a particular moment that changed something significant? So, that would be my comment on that. And obviously on the windows of opportunity piece, I mean, people were trying to shovel through a lot of things and that’s good and bad, but I think some people made lots of good progress on some things.
It became really possible to talk about work from home and more flexible work arrangements in a positive way, childcare, employment standards. Those all became windows of opportunity. But the labour standard stuff, people became more seized with essential workers and gig work. But the ordinary processes on some of those were not disappearing. They were still trying to figure out how do we define a job? Like an employee-employer relationship. What’s a contract worker? What’s a temp worker? All of those things were still being defined, but lots of people were getting calls and helping governments figure it out.
Elizabeth: So, the next question I have and I think it’s in your space, is about intergovernmental relations. So, some of us work on files that have all orders of government playing a role. Sometimes it’s fed pro sometimes it’s fed pro municipal. Do you have any ideas about how civil society advocates can be more effective? Because those are complex enough things as is, where, and how can civil society actors be useful and any advice to them?
Matthew: So, as a questioner said, and as you said, my point that you have to get a lot of things to align to make progress on stuff, is even more true when you have inter-government elements involved. And it’s really hard. And all the same stuff depends on context, depends on the situation or the issue or the governments.
The governments, are they trying to cooperate or not trying to cooperate? Are they from the same party or not? All of those things. But I I’d say a couple of things. One is that it’s a space where influencing public opinion and the overall communication environment through a variety of different means, through social media and public mobilization and activism can be useful to create a different political environment. So, both governments have to act. But often there are moments when it is up to one government to act, right?
So, just thinking about the last number of years, the National Housing Strategy, the first round of the early childhood education and childcare agreements. Those were the Liberal party, the federal government making clear commitments. And so they were moving forward on those and most provinces were quite supportive. Obviously provinces are supportive of money for things. And then you get sometimes into the overarching intergovernmental agreement, childcare, housing. But then there are implementation issues that the province and the municipalities have influence over. And yes, there may still be a role for the federal government, but yes, intergovernmental is more complex, but sometimes there are sequences and natural actors who are taking a lead at a particular moment in time.
Many years ago when I was in Ontario, we were putting lots of pressure on the federal government on a bunch of different issues. But often there was agreement in Ontario that we want to do this. So, we weren’t trying to persuade civil society, didn’t have to persuade the Ontario or the municipal government. It was focused on the federal government and focused on changes to immigration, or changes to labour market agreements, where there was already kind of a big consensus at the province. So, yes, it’s more complex, but on some issues, I do think there are clear windows and sequences.
Elizabeth: Great. We only have two minutes left. There are a number of questions that ask or talk about the issue of smaller nonprofits, smaller organizations, NGOs, don’t always get a seat at the table. They’re not always part of the conversation. They have a harder time having influence. That’s part of the reality of it. There’s a power issue there and how to navigate that, how to get into the conversation perhaps. So, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on examples where you’ve seen small organizations sort of outperform what you would otherwise expect the rule to be, and what did they have that got them there?
Matthew: Sure. I mean, I think there are three things I would say there.
First, there’s the activism piece, which is important, but I won’t speak to that, but small organizations can organize social media campaigns. And I understand that takes work. I’m not saying that’s simple, but there are things that small organizations can do. But I’d say three things. First, there’s an aggregation piece and there are organizations like the Ontario Nonprofit Network, or Maytree or other foundations that have more institutional capacity and resources, and so being aligned with them or influencing them.
I assume, Elizabeth, if someone came to you, who’s working in the poverty space with good ideas and they run a small organization, you would be engaged with that and could help. So, I do think there’s an aggregation piece.
I do go back to the ideas matter and talent matters. I know lots of organizations, some of them on here, people, I won’t call anyone out because I’ll miss people. But I saw some very smart, talented people who I know have started their own social enterprises, their own small not-for-profits, their own engagement activities, and have built them up over time, but had enormous impact early on because of their talent, and hard work, and intelligent and identifying problems and identifying real solutions. And yes, it’s easier for a large organization, but small organizations can do that as well.
And then I finally say the third thing, which is that, again, relationships matter. And even small organizations can get meetings with opposition, political staffers and subject matter expertise in the public service, and might not be able to get a meeting with the deputy minister on your first go around. But if you have ideas and talent and solutions to real problems, I do think it’s possible that smaller organizations, one-person organizations can have an impact.
Elizabeth: Very often they also have the stories from the frontline.
Matthew: I mean, part of what I’ve been focused on a lot in the last few years is really thinking about how government policy cascades down to frontline and to community, and how there are often these big disconnects. And so your addition there, Elizabeth, is exactly right and probably the best of the three points I made.
But the most useful one is some organizations have real world practical delivery experience, and can say, yeah, I know you’re doing this policy, but here’s how it’s being experienced on the ground, and here’s how it can be improved or fixed to achieve the outcome you want to achieve anyway. So, I think that’s a really good.
Matthew Mendelsohn is a public policy entrepreneur, researcher, strategic advisor, and public sector executive. He has been using public policy to deliver economic and social impact for 25 years. He is currently a Visiting Professor and co-founder of First Policy Response at Ryerson University in Toronto and a Senior Advisor to BCG’s Global Public Sector Practice.
From 2016-2020 he served as Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet in the Privy Council Office, where he led the Prime Minister’s Results & Delivery Unit and the Impact & Innovation Unit. During his time in Ottawa, he also co-led the Government of Canada data strategy, oversaw advice on digital and platform governance, and designed Impact Canada, which developed Challenges and outcomes-based funding initiatives for the government.
Prior to his role in the Privy Council Office, Matthew was the founding Director of the Mowat Centre, a public policy think tank in the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. During that time, he published and spoke about government transformation, democratic institutions, social and economic policy, and federalism.
Matthew is a former Deputy Minister and Associate Secretary to the Cabinet with the Ontario government and a former Senior Advisor in the federal government’s Privy Council Office where he led the polling unit. He was a chief architect of the 2015 Liberal election platform and a member of Prime Minister Trudeau’s transition team. Matthew received his B.A. from McGill University and Ph.D. from the l’Université de Montréal and held a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia. He was a tenured faculty member in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University for 10 years and has been an active board member for many non-profit and charitable organizations that support community well-being, civic engagement, and economic and social inclusion.