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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June 1st, 2015

Learning Public Management Experientially (MGSC03)

Education, Government

Recently I was walking along Bayview near Eglinton with my teenage son. Two joggers passed by, then a few seconds later they stopped and I heard one of them call out “Professor Borins.” I turned around, he came up to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I took your public management course years ago. I played the role of prime minister in your budget simulation, and it was one of the best learning experiences I ever had in university.”

Having my now teenage son with me was crucial. Given normal teenage skepticism about the parental unit, it was rewarding to have him hear a stranger saying I did something right. And I also have a witness for my story.

The course the former student – now a lawyer who jogs on weekends, he told me – was referring to is MGSC03 (Public Management).

The course is an introduction to public management. It’s aimed not only at students who think they might work in the public sector, but also students who are interested in the public sector because they simply want to know how it functions, or because they anticipate that their work in the private sector might put them in contact with government. Because the public sector accounts for approximately one-third of the Canadian economy, quite a few of our management students will spend at least part of their careers in the public sector or dealing with it.

As my former student attested, there is a large experiential component to the course. In the middle of the course, we have a budget exercise. Students form teams that represent the spending departments (Health, Industry, Natural Resources, Human Resources) and the central agencies (Prime Minister, Minister of Finance). The spending departments must allocate either a collective budget increase or a collective budget cut. The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance are there to lead the process but not necessarily to dictate the outcome. The simulation involves web-based research about the departments, advocacy, and then negotiation. Over the years, I’ve had feedback from many students that it was a great experiential learning exercise.

A second experiential learning component is the crisis management exercise. I’ll walk into class one day with a “black swan” scenario, ask one student to be the prime minister or minister in charge, and other students to come up with a plan. This year’s crisis: with the support of the singer Shakira, leaders of the Aboriginal community advocate a boycott of the Pan-Am Games and plan demonstrations. How should the federal, provincial, and municipal governments respond?

My presentations in the course involve explaining the basics of how the public sector operates, in particular the linkage between political leadership and public sector implementation, and then applying that knowledge to a number of contexts, such as financial management (the budget exercise), crisis management, management of information and information technology, and human resource management. A general election at the federal level will be held next October 19, and I will explain the outcome and discuss the agenda of Canada’s next government, whichever party (or parties) form it.

I will be giving MGSC03 winter semester on Tuesdays from 11 to 1. I look forward to working together with you, experientially, to understand the public sector and the skills you need to be an effective manager in it.

June 1st, 2015

Watch Great Movies. Tell your Story. Learn Management. (MGSC12)

Education, Narrative

MGSC12 (Narrative and Management) is not your typical management course. It’s based on the now well-recognized idea that telling stories is fundamental aspect of being human, and that well-told stories can be immensely persuasive, particularly in a management context.

MGSC12 begins by introducing some fundamental ideas about story-telling, such as the roles of protagonist and narrator and the relationship between them, as well as the structure of archetypal stories about managers. The course then applies these ideas in a number of ways.

We use some superb contemporary movies about managers both as examples of the art of story-telling and as cases in effective or ineffective management. You can think of these movies, and the way we use them, as management cases, with the difference that they employ moving images, and are authored, acted, and produced by people who are the best in the business.

The movies we watch are all up-to-date. Some examples: The Social Network, the story of the origins of Facebook; Inside Job, an Academy award winning documentary about the global financial crisis; Zero Dark Thirty, a story about a determined and brilliant front-line public servant who made a huge difference; and The Fog of War, an Academy Award winning documentary about former US Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara, probably the smartest MBA ever – which  didn’t prevent him from making some colossal mistakes.

There are two movies about Steve Jobs coming out this fall, a critical documentary entitled Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine and a biopic written by Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of The Social Network. We will incorporate one or both of these into the course.

In a typical week, you watch the movie before class and we then discuss it in class. Often we use table work. I divide students into groups, assigning each group a question to discuss for 15 minutes, and then ask a member of the group do a short presentation summarizing their discussion.

I also have two assignments giving you an opportunity to tell your story, one about the significant turning points in your life and the other focusing on your interactions with a particular organization (a Coop placement for example). We’re in the course together, so I’ll tell my story too.

You’ll emerge from MGSC12 with a much better understanding of how to tell persuasive stories in a management setting, and you’ll also watch quite a few thought-provoking and inspiring movies.

I teach MGSC12 (Narrative and Management) fall semester on Mondays from 11 to 1. Last year’s detailed course outline is posted on the Courses page on this website. I’ll replace it with this year’s detailed outline later this summer. I look forward to showing you how story-telling and movies can form an essential part of your management education.

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.