Heading into the holidays, people may wonder whether any good thing could come from this pandemic. Well, here’s some good news. There are encouraging signs that COVID-19 is changing politics – for the better. Ontario Premier Doug Ford helps us see why.
Two Ways to Frame an Issue
At a press conference in early November, Ford found himself defending the criteria behind the stages in his COVID-19 Response Plan. Apparently, the premier wanted to give small businesses a fighting chance to survive so he ignored the advice of his medical experts and set broader thresholds. “We have to do a balance,” he declared impatiently.
This “balancing” metaphor is a recurring theme among first ministers, who use it to explain their approach to the pandemic. And that is interesting. Balancing turns out to be different from their usual “binary” approach to issues:
- The binary approach frames issues as a choice between two mutually exclusive options (either/or) and then picks a side.
- The balancing approach requires a leader to sort through both sides of an issue in search of middle ground.
Climate change is a timely example. If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the binary approach tends to see the oil and gas industry as an opponent to be defeated, while the balancing approach looks for innovative ways that government and industry can solve the problem together.
Historically, partisan politics favours the binary approach, but it’s coming under increasing fire. Issues, we now know, are rarely black and white and real solutions are more likely to be found in the grey zones. Sorting through these shades of grey thus is where much of the most interesting policy work now gets done.
To politicians, however, balancing sounds not only difficult, but risky. To succeed, the public needs to understand how the two sides fit together. People need to see a solution take shape – and that requires transparency. With the binary approach, the messy parts of policy making usually happen behind closed doors.
COVID could be a game-changer here and the reason, in a word, is evidence. Expert briefings on the virus have dominated the public airwaves for almost a year and Canadians have been remarkably attentive. Most now get the point of evidence-based policy making and this, in turn, has raised expectations – and a dilemma.
On one hand, people expect their leaders to listen to the medical experts on COVID-19. On the other hand, they want the economy and their livelihoods protected. Unfortunately, these two objectives seem to pull in opposite directions.
In response, politicians like Doug Ford have been wading into the issues and trying to sort through the shades of grey. For many, this is a new and unsettling experience – and that makes the premier’s press conference fascinating viewing.
Balancing Is About Learning
Staring into the cameras, Ford is visibly anxious. The stakes have never been higher; he knows that he has strayed from the experts’ advice and is obviously worried that he may have gone too far. In an era of hyper-partisan politics, an error in judgement on this issue could end his career.
At least, that is how things would likely play out on the binary approach but balancing creates a more forgiving environment – precisely because of the transparency. Let’s take a step back.
Policy analysts describe issues like the pandemic or climate change as complex, which means that each one is really a dynamic constellation of issues, rather than single and isolated.
Analysts often compare such constellations to “ecosystems,” such as a forest or a marsh, where everything is connected and evolving together. In this world, a change to one part of the system sends ripples in every direction.
Looking at the pandemic this way helps us understand why the balancing metaphor is so important. There are simply too many variables, connected in too many ways, to find a single solution to the problem. Complex systems can be highly unpredictable.
We see this in the strategies that Ford and other premiers are using to contain the virus, while protecting the economy. Sometimes they get the balance right, and sometimes they get it wrong. In hindsight, Ford’s decision to broaden the colour-coded categories turns out to have been a bad one.
Should he have listened more carefully to the experts? Perhaps. After all, the whole point of evidence-based policy making is to benefit from the experts’ advice. But this is harder than it sounds.
Experts can provide real insight into the risks associated with different options, but it is not their job to tell the public how to weigh these risks against one another. Weighing risks involves value judgements and people with different values weigh them differently.
In the end, it falls to the premier to decide where the “right” balance lies. And that’s a tough call. If Ford got this one wrong, it is not because he is unconcerned about people’s health or indifferent to the risks. It is because first ministers are under enormous pressure both to protect public health AND save the economy.
We draw two final lessons from this discussion:
- There is no “perfect” balance between these goals. People will always have differences. But there are better and worse choices and finding them would be much easier if everyone understood how complex issues work, why balancing is the right way to manage them, and how it differs from the binary approach.
- Balancing is a learning process that involves trial and error, and the public needs to see the process working this way. Transparency is essential. To help realize this, critics should focus less on whether premiers like Ford get it right the first time, and more on whether they are learning the right lessons as they go.
We’re inclined to cut them a little slack this Christmas. It’s been a hell of a year.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com
Andrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.