Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative and innovation.

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May 19th, 2015

Questions I would have Asked Richard Suzman

Government, Innovation

Recently I saw a lengthy obituary in The New York Times for Richard Suzman. I remembered meeting him four decades ago when he was a teaching fellow in Harvard’s undergraduate social studies program and I was a sophomore. His specialty was Freud, the thinker with whom the students were least familiar. He generously offered an extra tutorial one Saturday afternoon to those of us who wanted to know more.

Our paths never crossed again, so I was interested in learning about the life Suzman lived. The Times headline called him a “researcher [who] influenced global surveys on aging.” This seemed like a way of saying he was an academic, but reading beyond the headline, I discovered that he was a midlevel public servant at the National Institute of Health, the director of the Behavioral and Social Research division of the National Institute on Aging.

This intrigued me even more; the New York Times almost never publishes obituaries for midlevel public servants. The answer to the conundrum was that Suzman played a central role in creating the US Health and Retirement Survey, which examines the relationships among aging, medical care, and financial status. Beyond that, he helped other countries replicate the survey, so that research on aging now has a global dimension. And still beyond that, he used his division’s grants to stimulate interdisciplinary research and support the development of behavioral economics, a virtual revolution within the field.

Suzman was described by Alan Krueger, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers as a “uniquely entrepreneurial, proactive bureaucrat” and by Nobel laureate in economic sciences Daniel Kahneman as “an oxymoron – an original and creative bureaucrat.” For me, that’s the essence of Suzman’s story. The key finding of my research on public sector innovation is that the term “original and creative bureaucrat” shouldn’t be an oxymoron, both because there are more public servants like Richard Suzman than the skeptics believe and because there are well-known practices that would encourage even more public servants to act innovatively and creatively.

In The Persistence of Innovation in Government, I reported on interviews with several public servants like Richard Suzman. My regret is that I didn’t know about Suzman’s life work so I could have interviewed him. The Times obituary reported that he was in frequent contact with academics, bombarding them with ideas for how they could use data that NIH had gathered and “all but ordering [them] to apply for a grant.” The obituary, however, said nothing about Suzman’s relationships with colleagues at NIH and elsewhere. I would have asked about which of his colleagues, particularly his superiors, questioned his initiatives and which supported them and how he built coalitions. Did he work entirely at the bureaucratic level or were politicians involved? How did he manage interagency coordination within the US government in his role as director of the Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics? How did he convince other nations to come on board and replicate the United States study?

I would have asked about his intellectual and personal background. How did apply the lessons of Harvard’s interdisciplinary social studies program to stimulating interdisciplinary research? As a youth in the early Sixties, Suzman was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and also, he told me, the nephew of apartheid’s most effective parliamentary critic Helen Suzman. He left hastily to escape prosecution. How did this backstory shape his view of the public sector’s potential for both good and evil?

Suzman deals with some of these questions in a late-in-life interview he gave the Journal of Economics of Ageing, as his health was deteriorating due to ALS. But I would have probed more deeply.

One way to encourage public sector creativity and entrepreneurship is to study and celebrate the accomplishments of creative and entrepreneurial public servants. Consider this post, therefore, as a celebration of Richard Suzman’s eventful life and innovative and path-breaking work.


May 15th, 2015

Review of The Persistence of Innovation in Government


Here is a link to a scholarly review of The Persistence of Innovation in Government that was published in the most recent issue of the academic journal Public Administration Review:

Blanco review of Persistence of Innovation in Government

April 28th, 2015

Public Management and/or Political Messaging

Government, Politics

Two weeks ago I received an envelope from the Canada Revenue Agency that, surprisingly, was full of good news. First, it contained a letter from the Tax Centre that handles our returns listing the names and birthdates of our two children under the age of 18 on whose behalf my wife will be receiving the enhanced Universal Child Care Benefit. Second, it included a letter from Hon. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Minister of National Revenue, informing us of the new package of family tax cuts and benefits that are being introduced by the Government of Canada (with asterisks indicating that they are subject to Parliamentary approval). The letter also mentioned enhanced benefits that have already been implemented. Finally, for good measure, the envelope contained an 8 inch by 3 inch colour flyer entitled “New family tax cuts and benefits for your family!” with the new benefits summarized in bullet points, a heart-warming picture of a family complete with canine strolling in the park, and the Economic Action Plan logo and Canada wordmark at the bottom.

What to make of all this? The letter from the Tax Centre rested on a foundation of integrated data management and provided an opportunity for my wife and me to ensure that CRA had the correct information about our children. That’s simply good public management.

The letter from the Minister and the flyer, however, are political messaging. Though “Government of Canada” rather than “Harper Government” was used, this was a clear instance of the Harper Government, in the run-up to the election, reminding this target group of all the things it had already done and would soon be doing for us. While this is less blatant and expensive than the Government of Canada commercials airing during the NHL playoffs, it is an instance of the same phenomenon. If the Liberals promised Advertising Commissioner in the Office of the Auditor General were in place, I’m sure (s)he would judge this mailing as unacceptable political advertising by the government.

More and more, politics as practiced by the Harper Government involves identifying target groups that polling data predicts are likely to vote Conservative, redistributing public resources to those groups through the tax system, and advertising to make sure that members of the group get the message and, impressed and grateful, vote Conservative. Demographics has happened to make me – a senior citizen with young children and a spouse who does not work outside the home – a recipient of many instances of Harper Government largesse. (Addendum: I once received Jewish New Cards from Stephen when the Conservatives were targeting the Jewish vote.)

The Harper Government’s vision of public policy is to a great degree based on marketing as she is taught in business schools. Use the redistributive capacity of the tax system to create private goods for targeted groups and then use public funds to advertise the availability and desirability of these goods. The French historian Renan wrote – and Pierre Trudeau quoted him – that “To have had glorious moments in common in the past, a common will in the present, to have done great things together and to wish to do more, those are the essential conditions for a people.” The challenge to the Liberals, NDP, and Greens in the coming election is to enunciate a vision of politics closer to Renan’s than Harper’s.

Finally, I should mention that I used this mailing as the basis of a question on the final exam in my public administration course, asking the students about the intentions of both the CRA’s and minister’s letters. Almost all the students in the course, many of whom are visa students from the People’s Republic of China, understood what the letters were about. So I feel I’ve done my duty to explain to my students how public management and political messaging dovetail as practiced by the Harper Government. What we must soon consider as voters is whether we want this vision or an alternative.


April 5th, 2015

Sherlock Holmes or Robert Langdon – That’ a No-Brainer


I purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, for an airplane flight and got around to reading it a few weeks later. The Wall Street Journal’s reviewer, featured on the back cover, called Brown “the master of the intellectual cliffhanger.” Excuse me, I always thought that accolade was reserved for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels.

I wrote a post several years ago – September 17, 2009 to be exact – about the Sherlock Holmes stories, discussing Doyle’s choice of a narrator. Departing from the nineteenth century convention of the omniscient narrator, the stories are narrated by Dr. Watson, Holmes’s assistant, representing the reader who is baffled by Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction. This approach was also used by Umberto Eco in his great 1980 detective novel The Name of the Rose. The narrator is Adso of Melk, the novice assistant to the great mediaeval detective William of Baskerville, a choice of name that signifies Eco’s homage to Doyle.

This led me to think about the nature of Brown’s story and his choice of a narrator. In Inferno, Brown’s long-term protagonist Robert Langdon attempts to prevent malefactor Bertrand Zobrist from unleashing an airborne virus that will render one third of humanity infertile, thereby dramatically reducing the world’s population. Langdon, as Brown’s readers know, is an art history professor at Harvard, blessed with eidetic (photographic) memory. Zobrist, who implausibly shares a surname with a talented and deeply religious professional baseball player, is a standard fictional villain, driven to pursue a reasonable goal – reducing global resource use – by an inhuman(e) means.

Zobrist’s hubris comes in preparing for the world a coded message explaining his vile intentions. Langdon, with his vast classical knowledge of Florence’s streets, architecture, and art works, ultimately cracks Zobrist’s code. Langdon and Zobrist are both geniuses, albeit in different ways, the former a visual savant, the latter a leading-edge biogenetic scientist. There are lots of other really smart people in the novel: a genius actress-linguist-physician who appears at first to be helping Langdon; the brilliant head of the World Health Organization, mobilizing global health networks to combat the virus; and a mercenary event planner, who unwillingly facilitates Zobrist’s scheme.

In the Sherlock Holmes novels and in The Name of the Rose, the best choice of narrator is the assistant to the master of deduction. In Inferno there are so many geniuses in conflict with one another that Brown uses an omniscient narrator to help the reader understand the nature of their conflict. I find Robert Langdon much less compelling than either Holmes or Baskerville. Holmes and Baskerville were exercising their highly-developed powers of observation and deduction to solve ill-defined problems. When, at the end of the stories, they explain what they did, we recognize the workings of their minds as similar in kind to our own but operating at a higher level. Thinking like Holmes or Baskerville is something worth aspiring to. For most of Inferno, Langdon was exercising his exceptional powers of recall, remembering places or works of art he had seen once. There is something much less intellectually satisfying about a protagonist who relies on eidetic memory, because that talent cannot be reproduced or emulated. As Brown kept eluding his pursuers because of his superior knowledge of the Florentine terrain, eventually I found the exercise simply boring.

To return to the title of this post, the choice is a no-brainer. I find Holmes a much more stimulating and inspiring genius than Langdon. Brown’s novel – spoiler alert here – ends with the airborne virus released, so presumably there will be a sequel in which Langdon and other geniuses figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle. Undoubtedly, it will sell millions of copies, just like Inferno. I won’t be buying one.


April 1st, 2015

Alan Hockin’s Grace under Adversity


Alan Hockin had a distinguished career as a senior public servant in the Department of Finance and then as executive vice-president at Toronto-Dominion Bank. His third career as Dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies (now Schulich School of Business) at York University was likely his most challenging.

When Alan became Dean in 1985, the faculty was eager to move forward, but without any clear sense of direction. Alan was selected Dean in spring 1984 by then President H. Ian Macdonald, but by the time he arrived Macdonald had completed his term. Macdonald and Hockin had common experiences as senior public servants in finance and would have worked well together. I don’t think he and Macdonald’s successor, Harry Arthurs, had the same chemistry.

Alan invited me to serve as Associate Dean, which I did for much of the time he was dean, so I had a close-up view of the issues he had to confront. It became apparent to Alan that one big obstacle to moving the faculty forward was that it was cross-subsidizing the rest of the university to a substantial degree. As befits his background, Alan wanted to know the precise extent of the cross-subsidy. Reluctantly, York’s central administration provided an answer that confirmed Alan’s suspicions.

There were colleagues who expected that Alan would leverage his corporate connections to bring in vast sums of endowment dollars. Given the state of the faculty’s finances, Alan didn’t think he could play that role with integrity.

Roger Wolff, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Management was facing a similar predicament. Thinking out of the box, he and Alan hit upon the idea of the two business schools merging to create a stand-alone management faculty. Both felt this approach would reduce or even eliminate cross-subsidization and attract greater support from the business community. While rare in North America, there are a considerable number of stand-alone management faculties in Europe. The proposal was ultimately vetoed by the two university presidents. At that point, Alan thought it appropriate to end his term as dean.

Harry Arthur’s selection of Alan’s successor turned out to be one of his best decisions. Dezso Horvath, much to his credit, found other ways to move the faculty forward. His Hungarian background provided a great opportunity for public profile at the moment the Soviet Union was collapsing. He worked tirelessly on outreach to the business community and on increasing the faculty’s international orientation. Seymour Schulich’s naming endowment and the construction of a new building were important achievements. These initiatives, like those at other Ontario universities, were supported by the Ontario government’s deregulation of tuition fees at management faculties.

Former York colleagues Chris Robinson and Bernard Wolf have posted on Alan’s condolences page ( that he was supportive of their careers. When I think back on my time at York, I realize how supportive he was of my career, and in so many ways. When Allan Blakeney came to Osgoode Hall as a visiting scholar, Alan Hockin put us in touch; Blakeney and I subsequently taught a course together and co-authored a book. Alan noticed that my salary had fallen out of step, and without my asking gave me a raise. My time as associate dean didn’t end particularly well, so he recommended I be granted a one-semester leave to regroup.

When I received an offer to go to the U. of T., I asked Alan’s advice. Alan was shrewd and realistic, and empathetically approached the question in terms of my own best interests. A few years later, as Chair of the Department of Management at UTSC, I began fund-raising for a research fund in honour of Wynne Plumptre, UTSC’s first Principal and, before that, one of Alan’s fellow mandarins in Finance. Alan made a substantial donation that got this initiative off to a good start.

As in his careers in government and banking, Alan brought dignity, integrity, and imagination to his career at York. As a first-time academic administrator, I learned much from him. He cared about his colleagues and used his influence to advance our careers. I mourn his passing and honour his achievements and his legacy.