Sandford Borins is professor emeritus of public management at the University of Toronto.
As part of its public consultation for the 2023 budget to be presented on Thursday, the Ontario Finance Ministry posted a survey on its website. The survey was not widely publicized, but there were almost 8,400 responses.
How do I know that? I asked the Finance Ministry if they were planning to post the results. When they said no, I filed a Freedom of Information request to prise the information out. To their credit, the FOI staff quickly responded and a few days later sent me an Excel file with the raw data.
The survey consisted of nine multiple-choice questions, asking respondents about their top priorities for the government, for the budget, for health care, for their community, for transit and infrastructure, for filling labour shortages, for making Ontario a more attractive destination for people and business, and for increasing affordability. Finally, it asked respondents which region of the province they live in.
The survey found that respondents have strong preferences, but they aren’t reflected in current government policies.
When asked for their three top priorities for the government, 79 per cent identified investing in the health and long-term care sector work force and 64 per cent selected support to deal with the increasing cost of living. On the other hand, only 16 per cent wanted additional support and tax incentives for small business and 17 per cent wanted to eliminate Ontario’s deficit.
When asked to give their three top priorities for the budget specifically, 70 per cent selected health and long-term care, 60 per cent affordable housing, and 47 per cent managing the cost of inflation. However, only 22 per cent selected lowering taxes, 18 per cent building infrastructure, and 15 per cent making communities safer. For both of these questions, respondents asked for a budget that is more in line with the priorities of an NDP or Liberal government than the current Progressive Conservative government.
The question about transportation and infrastructure is fascinating because there have been sharp differences here between the PCs and the opposition.
Asked to give two top priorities, 60 per cent selected building or improving public transit, 43 per cent chose improving traffic congestion in urban areas, and 41 per cent cited building infrastructure for biking. However, only 19 per cent chose highways that cut down on commute time (the rationale for the proposed Highway 413), and 12 per cent selected improving access to the 400 series highways (the rationale for the Bradford Bypass). To combine this and the previous question, infrastructure isn’t a high priority, and within infrastructure, public transit far outranks highways.
Often in a survey, what isn’t asked is as important as what is. The survey does not include any of the following words or phrases: climate change, environment, renewable, green energy or Greenbelt. The word education also never appears, even in a question about filling labour shortages and investing in workers. Clearly, the questions were run through an ideological filter at the political level.
The questions all give respondents the option of checking “other” and then writing in a comment. Experts in survey design include the most likely expected answers as options to minimize the frequency of “other” answers. It is no surprise that the percentage of respondents checking “other” was a relatively high 11 to 22 per cent, depending on the question.
A search of all the comments revealed that education was manually entered in that field 965 times and climate, environment, renewable, green energy or Greenbelt a combined total of 647 times. What was suppressed in the multiple choices still came out in the comments. But if the choices included climate change, environment, and education, they would have been cited more often.
The detailed results of the survey – which are more comprehensive than I can include here – can serve as a touchstone to judge the budget the Ford government presents this week.
Public surveys about priorities could become a powerful tool in budget-making if there were several improvements over this one. First, the survey would be unbiased in that it would include all relevant policy areas, without an ideological filter. Second, the survey would be widely publicized to increase participation. Finally, a Freedom of Information inquiry would not be necessary to make the results public.