A Creative Public Management Exam

In setting exams, I combine questions to determine if students understand the concepts taught with questions to determine if they can use the concepts. The latter are often based on recent or future news stories.

One question based on future news stories laid out two scenarios for the next Ontario election (June 7, 2018). In the first, the Liberals win 60 seats, the Conservatives 40, and the NDP 24. In the second, the Conservatives win 60 seats, the Liberals 40, and the NDP 24. Also several prominent ministers including Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Health Minister Eric Hoskins lost their seats.

The question asked what Kathleen Wynne, as the Lieutenant-Governor’s chief adviser, should do. If the student does the math, they will see that the Liberals are close to a majority in the first and the Conservatives are close to a majority in the second. In the first, I expected students to say Premier Wynne would tell the Lieutenant Governor she intended to form a government and attempt to remain in power with the support of the other parties, most likely the NDP.

In the second scenario, I expected the student to say that, even though Premier Wynne could form a government and attempt to gain the confidence of the legislature, she would more likely resign as premier. This would be the case for several reasons, including the “apparent convention” that the party with the most seats has the first chance to form a government, the Conservatives’ large margin over the Liberals, media pressure and public opinion, and finally disaffection with Wynne’s leadership within the Liberal caucus.

Unfortunately, not all students did the math, and therefore didn’t realize that both scenarios involved minority governments. Students who went down that path didn’t recognize the minority government problem, and focused mainly on forming a cabinet. Students who did the math, rightly, went on to discuss Wynne conferring with the other party leaders. In addition, virtually every student who did the math concluded that Wynne should resign in the second scenario. Though they didn’t provide detailed explanations why, they accepted the “apparent convention.” I consider that an interesting observation about how Canadians think about minority government.

In another “future news” question, I presented an entirely different scenario: the Conservatives win a strong majority government. I posed four priorities for Premier-designate Patrick Brown: implementing a 5 percent ($6 billion) budget cut, redesigning the Premier’s home page on Ontario.ca, initiating a system of tracking performance metrics for all departments, and putting in place an online tracker to show if the Conservatives are delivering on the promises they made in the campaign. The new premier’s home page section was the most straight-forward, and students were expected to discuss its content, colour palette, use of social media, and links to Ontario.ca. In the other parts, it was necessary to discuss organizational mechanisms, such as the use of cabinet committees or subcommittees (a subcommittee of Treasury Board to make the large and painful budget cuts) or consultants (on performance metrics and tracking promises made) or task forces.

A third question referred to the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative that Facebook launched in October. Playing the role of Facebook Canada’s Director of Public Policy, the student was asked what would be the likely source(s) of threats to the integrity of Canada’s 2019 federal election and whom to consult and partner with in developing the initiative. Virtually everyone mentioned the Russians as a possible source of threats, and some referred to Canada’s policy on the Ukraine and Global Affairs Minister Freeland’s tense relations with Russia. I was surprised that no one speculated about opposition to the Liberal Government from US-based populists and evangelicals or even the Trump Administration. Most students focused on federal government departments or political parties as partners in the initiative. A few mentioned NGOs such as Samara Canada. Others mentioned crowd-sourcing by encouraging citizens to report what they perceived to be attempts to influence the election through the use of bots or dissemination of fake news.

The question referred to the provision of the Canada Elections Act making it illegal for non-Canadians to influence the election. Students therefore made suggestions for extensive policing of social media to enforce this. Reading their answers made me realize that, by blogging about the failures of the Trump Administration and posting links to my blog I am doing what would be illegal in Canada during an election campaign. I intend to do that during the next US election campaign. This raises, for me, the thorny question of freedom of speech for non-citizens during another country’s election campaign. That’s definitely a topic for another blog.

One final thought. As student’s cursive writing generally becomes increasingly illegible it would be a good idea for small upper-level classes such as mine to make computers available at the discretion of either the student – or the professor.

My exam challenged the students and led to answers that were way off base as well as those that were thoughtful and creative. I’ve always believed that an exam should be a learning experience, and the feedback in this blog is the final element of that experience.



  1. Sandy, I really enjoyed reading this blog post. Perhaps not surprisingly, we share a great deal in our pedagogic objectives and in how we think about exams.

  2. Sandy, another learning tour de force in the classroom! My query is whether the subject matter of the three exam cases doesn’t fall more readily into Political Science rather than Public Management? The tasks seem to have everything to do with political management; that is, managing the political power, partisan interests, and party fortunes of governing. Public Management courses normally focus on public administration and the central role of public service managers; that is, managing public institutions and deploying good practice to implement public policy, programs, and services. I am curious about the conceptual framework behind your Public Management course.

  3. Sandy,
    I enjoyed reading this from a couple of standpoints.
    First, the applicability of your case to the 1985 Ontario election brought back memories. (I doubt any of your students were born at that time!) That’s where the Conservatives, who had the most seats (by 2) but no majority, insisted on continuing their 42 year regime, even though the Liberals and the NDP had reached an agreement to allow the Liberals to govern. Of course, that Conservative government only lasted till the Throne Speech; enough time, some claimed for outgoing staff to loot their offices!
    Second, the point about non-citizens participating in or influencing elections is an interesting one. Does it mean that non-citizens cannot post anything critical or supportive of a party on social media while a campaign is on? And what about “fake news”? Would there be a difference if a citizen, or non-citizen posted it? Is the concern that it is false, or that non-citizens post it? Incidentally, I find the present outrage about “fake news” on social media, quite amusing, given the misleading statements and outright falsehoods that permeate US campaign ads.

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