Why we need open government and relentless examination and correction of our personal and institutional biases

By Kent D. Aitken, Prime Ministers Fellow, Public Policy Forum. @kentdaitken

More than 1,500 jurisdictions worldwide now conduct participatory budgeting: giving the public control over some portion of public funds. When citizens deliberate, hear diverse viewpoints and consider trade-offs and compromises, more inclusive and long-term policy decisions tend to result. The inclusive process corrects and balances our individual biases.

If Canada’s goal is inclusive economic growth — across geographic, demographic, economic and cultural lines — then we need more inclusive policy discussions about growth.

Let’s start with gender. When asked about public issues, women are more likely to consider the needs of vulnerable populations. Studies suggest that women would also set a more secure social safety net.

Our biases also stem from culture. Canada is much more individualistic than the countries from which most newcomers arrive. That is, native-born Canadians are more likely to believe that people should focus on taking care of themselves and their families; people in many newcomer communities tend to have a more community-oriented perspective.

So what does our policy community look like? Well, not quite like Canada.

While 2015 was famously the year of the gender-equal federal cabinet, the House of Commons writ large is still only 26 percent women. And 13.6 percent of members are visible minorities, compared to 19 percent across Canada. Indigenous peoples make up three percent of the House against 4.3 percent of the Canadian population. MPs’ average age is 51; Cabinet just got somewhat younger in the most recent shuffle but is similar at 50. Canada’s median age is 40.5.

The conversation changes depending on who is in the room. Research shows that Members of Parliament from visible minority populations are more likely to raise “ethnic minority issues.” Non-visible-minority MPs who represent ridings with diverse populations also increased that likelihood, but not as much.

Federal public service employment tracks above “workforce availability” for women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities, but slightly below when looking at the executive cadre (except for persons with disabilities). The average age is 45 years old. However, there’s one way in which the bureaucracy looks nothing like Canada: 41.7 percent of the public service works in the National Capital Region.

How about the private sector, which actively engages with government to promote a more growth-friendly policy platform? About 19.5 percent of positions on boards of directors across Canada’s top 500 companies are held by women. Only seven percent are under 50.

(Side note: a better gender balance will likely also increase economic growth; private firms that include women on boards of directors outperform their peers by 26 percent on return on capital investments.)

This is important because group composition affects discussions. Tali Mendelberg and Christopher Karpowitz studied gender and group dynamics through groups composed of different proportions of women. In groups that were less than half women, the men managed to consume disproportionate amounts of the speaking time and women were less likely to “raise the needs of the vulnerable and [argue] for redistribution” than in gender-balanced groups.

When we can’t ensure inclusivity through numbers, we can still improve inclusivity through design. Convenors of policy discussions have to be aware of the social and power dynamics within groups and address them. If you can’t fix the numbers, you can still fix the relative air time.

Which leaves us with two requirements for inclusive growth policy:

One: bring more people, from more walks of life, into the policy debate. Be aware of the privileges that make it easier for some to engage in public life and lower the barriers to entry for consultations, policy communities and careers.

Two: recognize that providing platforms for people to have their voice heard isn’t enough. If the human dynamics aren’t understood and accounted for, a systematically skewed policy discussion can result.

Both of these recommendations require relentless examination and correction of our personal and institutional biases: who’s in the room, how we talk, and how we hire and elect.

The Public Policy Forum is continuing the Growth Summit series that began in 2016 to answer parts of the inclusive economic growth question, examining the needed policy mix for investment, productivity, training and education.

Kent Aitken is the 2016–2017 Prime Ministers of Canada Fellow at Canada’s Public Policy Forum, studying and advising on governance in the digital age.

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