Innovation And Public Policy

Smiling young man in blue dress shirt and tie in front of Parliament Hill  Guest Post by: Jonathan Kates, Master of Public Policy Student

As a graduate student at UofT’s School of Public Policy & Governance and an executive member of the student-led Policy and Innovation Initiative, the Innovation Hub’s human-centered design focus overlaps with my own interest in innovative policy design. The way policy is designed at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government offers opportunities for or constraints to innovation. This is largely due to the fact that unlike businesses in the private sector who dream up a brilliant new product, governments rarely enjoy a first-mover advantage. That is, one of the main ways of selling policies to the public is by talking about a successful application of this policy somewhere else. “It worked well in the U.K.!”; “If Montreal can do it, so can Toronto!” The thing about policy is that it can be context-specific, so sometimes what worked in the United Kingdom or Quebec may not be what’s right for Canada or Ontario.  But does that mean we shouldn’t at least try and find out?

It’s no secret that politicians have a keen interest in getting re-elected and keeping their jobs, and because taxpayer money funds governments, all governing parties tend to be risk averse. This is where human-centred design can play a significant role. One thing governments can do is create pilot projects and test out theories and ideas that aim to solve complex challenges – things like income inequality, the gender wage gap, last-mile transit, community-based health care, and a whole host of other problems.

The University of Toronto seems to be a willing partner for testing interesting policy ideas after it recently announced a new pilot project to build two laneway houses just outside of Robarts Library. The intention is to test new ways of expanding housing options for students, staff and especially student-family housing, with the eventual goal of building 40-50 units. If it is successful, it could help make the case for eased zoning restrictions on laneway housing in other parts of Toronto and elsewhere. But we have to start somewhere.

There are some great examples of government test piloting right here in Ontario. If you live in Toronto, you’re probably familiar with the Bloor Street Bike Lane Pilot Project that ran last summer and into the fall. The City released its preliminary evaluation report and found, unsurprisingly, that there was a noteworthy increase in cyclists (36%) and new cyclists (25%) compared to the pre-pilot period. Another significant finding was that 63% of car drivers surveyed felt comfortable driving next to cyclists after the pilot was installed, compared to only 14% prior. However, the report also found that PM Peak Westbound traffic slowed down by an average of eight minutes during the pilot, even though no other traffic pattern increased more than four minutes. In response, the City is going to make some tweaks in an attempt to reduce this delay and come back again in a few months to determine if it worked.

The Government of Ontario recently ran and evaluated a public-private partnership pilot project to solve the “last mile” transit problem in Milton and is currently engaged in round 2 of a High Occupancy Tolls (HOT) lanes pilot on the QEW highway. They also have an upcoming pilot project to test the effects of individuals who are supplied a basic income.

Ontario has 20 public universities and 24 public colleges and there are hundreds more across the country. With some funding and relative autonomy to conduct the experiment, these institutions are well positioned to be the breeding grounds for interesting experiments.  Besides just policy outcomes, post-secondary institutions can also be experiment hubs for improving student outcomes. This is what the Innovation Hub is doing by surveying students on their experience and then thinking about ways to address those concerns using student input and feedback. 

In sum, testing and evaluating gives us a glimpse into whether something we may expect to happen in a given situation actually occurs or not. If we build more bike lanes will people use them? Will drivers pay for the chance to get to work faster? What are the best design and access conditions to reduce students’ stress levels around exam times or during their job searches? We’ll only learn the answers to these and many other questions if we actually try things out. What a novel idea.

Jonathan Kates is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and he holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon campus at York University.  His policy areas of interests are cities, social policy, innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and how individuals are influenced by their environments.

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