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Preston Manning

Chris Bolin/© 2007

Innovation - defined as new and better ways of doing valued things - is likely to be heavily stressed in this week's federal budget. It is the key to improving the performance of Canada's economy.

And what are the valued things that Canada needs to find new and better ways of doing? They include:

- The productive performance of businesses, especially in international markets;

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- The cost-effective provision of essential services, especially health care;

- The responsible operation of the senior institutions of Canadian democracy - our Parliament and legislatures.

The need for innovation to restore faith in our democratic institutions has been highlighted by the recent debate over whether an often dysfunctional minority Parliament should have been prorogued.

The need for innovation in government services has been highlighted by Canada's becoming the second-highest per capita health-care spender in the world among countries that offer universal health care, while our performance with respect to everything from access to doctors and MRIs to the reduction of deaths due to illness is inferior to that of most other OECD countries.

Most importantly, the need for innovation to increase the productivity and competitiveness of our private sector has been identified recently by half a dozen government-commissioned reports as absolutely essential to Canada's economic recovery and future prosperity.

The clear and urgent need for innovation in our democratic institutions, government services, and the business sector is not a matter of dispute. What is not so clear is what sort of mechanisms we should put in place to spearhead and act upon the innovation imperative.

Here are three suggestions: With respect to advancing innovations in the operations of Parliament and the legislatures - for example, innovative changes to Question Period, committee work, the confidence convention, voting procedures - it must be recognized that such innovations cannot be initiated by Parliament or the legislatures themselves. This is because of the inability to get all-party agreement and the political risks involved should an innovation experiment fail.

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Thus the Manning Centre has proposed the creation of a properly financed model parliament for Canada which would serve as a laboratory for parliamentary reforms, from which innovations successfully tested could then be transferred at low risk to the country's real parliament and legislatures.

With respect to a mechanism to spearhead health-care innovation - for example, moving toward a European-style system with universal coverage and a well balanced mix of public/private insurance, financing, and delivery - such innovation (under our Constitution) must come from one of the provinces. In the 1960s, it was Saskatchewan that led the health-care revolution. Today, the most likely candidates are Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia, provided one can generate a courageous political champion of health-care innovation and a well-organized campaign to communicate its necessity and benefits to the public.

Finally, a mechanism to spearhead private-sector innovation to make the Canadian economy more productive and competitive is probably the most urgent imperative of all. And yet it is also the most perplexing. Despite years of discussion and hand-wringing, research and development by Canada's private sector consistently lags that of most of our OECD competitors. And a recent report by an expert panel of the Council of Canadian Academies attributes this deficiency to a widespread lack of innovation strategies and initiatives by Canadian companies themselves rather than to defects in government policy or funding.

Government competition policy and support for science, technology, and innovation (STI) can complement business leadership on the innovation front, but it is not a substitute for such leadership. Action to increase innovation in the economy is first and foremost a business responsibility. But what is the most appropriate mechanism for spearheading such private-sector innovation? Over the past two years, I have been in discussions with a variety of business, political, scientific and academic leaders on this question. There is a growing consensus that the key functions should include vigorous private-sector-based promotion of innovation among private-sector decision makers; persistent follow-up of private-sector recommendations to governments where supportive innovation policies and actions are required; and the provision of services to bridge the communications gap between the STI community and the business/political communities.

But again, what is the most appropriate mechanism for initiating and leading such functions? Suggestions have included a new "think and do tank," a competitiveness council, or an advocacy/consultancy organization attached to a university, research institute, or business association. But often the initial and understandable response from Canada's CEOs is "The last thing we need is another …" Most agree, however, that some sort of mechanism - independent of government, broadly based, well funded, highly focused, and led by an influential innovation leader - is definitely required.

Tom Jenkins, the executive chairman of Open Text, Canada's largest independent software manufacturer, has taken recently to referring to the required mechanism as "the thing." But what is the most appropriate structure of "the thing" that will provide leadership to Canada's private sector in meeting the innovation imperative? I would welcome your suggestions.

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Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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