Human beings are emotional creatures. We see it all over the place, nowhere more than in our political choices. Motivated by fear, hope, angst, sometimes anger, we collectively vote for or against candidates to run the government.

For voters in Ontario, the next election is a provincial one. All three parties and their leaders will spend the coming year trying to make emotional connections that will underpin their election campaigns. This is as it should be.

But governments are (theoretically, at least) also elected to do a job, not only to emote on our behalf. Their policy choices must be true to the connections their leaders and candidates made with voters to get elected. Those choices must at the same time define the ways in which they will achieve the social and economic outcomes that voters and businesses expect. Policy details — tax rates, funding levels, eligibility thresholds, transfer agreements, production quotas, phase-in periods — are tremendously important if, we admit, kind of dull.

Among the Ontario government’s most important jobs is to determine the level and type of future prosperity that Ontarians deserve, identify the obstacles to that prosperity and then implement a program to overcome those obstacles. Not an easy thing to do.

That’s why the task of developing public policy must not fall to government alone. We believe there is a growing gap in public policy development that requires us all to do more. We need to move beyond the notion that governments have a monopoly on public policy: they don’t.

To be sure, government is ultimately accountable for decisions, but all of us can participate in developing the paths to those decisions. Whether you think of government as a partner or as an obstacle, there are two reasons to make policy paramount.

First, policy is governments’ ideas. No organization succeeds without clarity of purpose and concrete ways to achieve that purpose. Government policy presents opportunities and obstacles to success for all kinds of organizations, not least Ontario’s job creators.

Businesses can and should be more active in articulating policy solutions that align the corporate interest with the public interest. They should offer more than simple rent-seeking, a fancy word that means asking government for special favours. They should connect the success of the private sector — the entire private sector, not only their own businesses — to Ontario’s prosperity. It’s good business and good corporate citizenship; it benefits the bottom line and our society at large.

Second, policy is the new currency for informing and influencing government decisions. Attending expensive political fundraisers and hiring former campaign aides to schedule meetings with government officials were never particularly effective ways to impact government decisions. Now they are being outlawed. Governments (and opposition parties) are looking for thoughtful partners, not bagmen.

Further, governments increasingly need to see broad support for proposals they are asked to consider. When businesses and other organizations bring ideas to government, they should bring a coalition of support as well. Too often businesses that are very successful in their own industries are not nearly as strategic in advocating for public policy ideas. They approach government with a policy proposal without properly demonstrating that it’s workable and that there is a market (political support) for it.

Political leaders and civil servants often admit they need help coming up with and implementing good policy ideas. And since government is like every other organization made up of human beings, it is not infallible. Decisions and their outcomes — both intended and unintended — can be harmful or, at any rate, unpopular. Nevertheless, the disagreements that occur over those ideas and outcomes are to be encouraged and are surely preferable to sterile debate or, worse, apathy.

Politicians’ success depends on a compelling emotional pitch. But governments are big complex organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees that spend hundreds of billions of dollars; they exist to do things. And those things can get done once governments have worked through the hard choices and complex details of policy.

In the final year leading up to Ontario’s 2018 election, all kinds of organizations should put on their thinking caps and present good policy ideas to make Ontario more prosperous. Let’s leave the feelings to the politicians.

Photo: The interior of the Queen’s Park legislative buildings in Toronto. Designed by architect Richard A. Waite; its construction begun in 1886 and it was opened in 1893. By Junior Braz /

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous rĂ©agir Ă  cet article ? Joignez-vous aux dĂ©bats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Geoff Owen
Geoff Owen is a principal at Foresight Strategic Advisors, a strategic advisory firm focused on helping organizations make better decisions.
Michael Keegan
Michael Keegan is the president of Michael Keegan and Associates, a public affairs strategy firm focused on developing partnerships between the public and private sectors. He previously worked in the Ontario government, advising Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne on a variety of policy areas.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this