The federal and Ontario governments have once again posted their online budget questionnaires, as part of their 2024 pre-budget consultations. The Ontario government’s is available until January 31 and the federal government’s until February 9. Completing the questionnaires is an easier way to submit your views than presenting a brief, attending a meeting, or contacting your MP or MPP. However, neither questionnaire is widely publicized, for example by mainstream or social media nudges.
As indicated by my title, both questionnaires can be completed any number of times from the same computer, as I just did a second time. But either or both may track submissions by device and, if there are multiple submissions, only count a subset of them.
The Feds do it Better
Both governments have questions about the respondent’s priorities for various budget themes. Thus, the Ontario government questionnaire asks about infrastructure, labour shortages, attracting investment, health care, and the cost of living. The federal government asks about job creation, economic growth, the cost of living, and “ensur[ing] that no Canadian gets left behind.” Both governments provide multiple choices as well as the ubiquitous “other.” The federal government questionnaire limits multiple choice responses to the number allowed for a given question, while the Ontario questionnaire permits more.
In addition to the thematic questions, the federal questionnaire has several features the Ontario questionnaire lacks. It asks respondents for their top five priorities for the overall budget and includes a wide range of choices: health care, housing, climate and the environment, infrastructure, support for refugees, national security, reducing the deficit, and balancing the budget. It has two entirely open-ended questions: first, “if you were designing the federal budget, what would you do to help grow Canada’s economy?” and, second, “what is one idea you have for how the federal government could support you or your community.” I like the question about overall budget priorities because it asks you to rank overall spending areas (defence vs. environment vs. health care) and I like the other two because they provide opportunities to write in ideas that don’t appear in the other questions. Canada’s lack of productivity growth is a widespread concern that could be entered in the first open-ended question. People might respond to the second with issues of concern that are not necessarily economic to communities that aren’t necessarily defined geographically. I could imagine people responding to that question with concerns about the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on their religious communities.
The federal government questionnaire has many more questions about the characteristics of the respondent than does the Ontario questionnaire. The latter only asks what part of the province the respondent is from and whether they live in an urban or rural community. The federal government asks about province of residence, age, total household income, gender, and minority status. It also asks about the respondent’s financial situation, including their housing, financial concerns, and financial goals. Including these detailed ascriptive criteria facilitates designing policies targeted to specific groups in society.
Words that the Ford Government Won’t Use
To its credit, the federal government questionnaire includes all the major areas of government activity. As was the case last year, the Ontario government questionnaire has certain predictable blind spots. It never uses the word “environment.” It mentions “higher learning” once, only in the context of a question about making Ontario a more attractive destination. The only reference to education is to “education supports (like before and after school programming, special education and developmental support programs).” The questionnaire skates around renewable energy by mentioning “charging” as an energy infrastructure option, electric vehicles as an economic growth opportunity, and “clean steel, critical minerals, and clean energy” as ways to support manufacturing. In contrast, the federal government includes green infrastructure as an economic growth option, renewable energy as an option to support the future economy, and protecting the environment and fighting climate change as an option for the top budgetary priority.
Finally, the Ontario government’s question about ways to reduce the cost of living includes eliminating fees for some government services as an option. Perhaps that is a signal that, after eliminating motor vehicle licence fees, other fees will be eliminated. Are drivers’ licences next? Maybe hunting permit, because hunters are far more likely to support the Conservatives than the opposition parties.
Complete the Questionnaire
Despite the shortcomings of the questionnaires, particularly Ontario’s, I encourage you to complete them. If you’re not planning to write a brief, contact your MP or MPP, or attend a meeting, then this is a quick way you can provide some input into the budgetary process. And you may like it so much, you do it again. And again.
My Next Step
As I did last year, I will send both governments freedom of information requests to give me the raw data from the questionnaires. The Ontario government did that within days, and I was able to write an op-ed for The Globe and Mail about the results of the survey before the budget came out. A federal public servant said they were going to provide the data, but ultimately never did. I will try again and, based on my previous unsuccessful experience, ask very specifically for data that can easily be provided (for example, skipping the open-ended questions).
The Potential of Budget Questionnaires
Budget questionnaires such as these have great potential that is not being realized. Here’s how it could be. First, the government should publicize the questionnaire widely through mainstream and social media, so that more people complete it. Second, the government should find a way that doesn’t compromise privacy but prevents an individual completing it from doing it multiple times. People who are more technologically adept than me – my children – tell me that is possible. Third, the overall results of the survey should be made available before the budget is presented. Finally, the budget questionnaire data, as a matter of course, should be made available to the public.
It’s time to go beyond the baby steps that these surveys represent to modernize budget consultation.