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, information technology, and innovation.

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May 8th, 2014

“I’m Alex Borins’s Dad and I’m here to Talk about the Public Service”

Education, Government

My son’s middle school was conducting a career fair and needed someone to talk about public service careers, so I volunteered to sit at a table in the gymnasium for 90 minutes to explain public sector careers to the students who came by.

The students wanted to know what types of work public servants did, what qualifications were required, and why people would want to work for the public service. I outlined very briefly many of the functions of government and hence the diversity of government work. The basic requirement is a bachelor’s degree, with advanced degrees for a variety of careers, and I made the case that working for the public service is an expression of patriotism and a desire to build the community.

Here are some comments I heard:

“You’re not very popular.” I was competing with a software developer, doctor, lawyer, and the fire department.

“Does the government have too much power?” Excellent question.

“How much do you make?” That’s a matter of public record, here’s my business card, and I suggest you do a search.

The thing I did right was to prepare a one-pager, with links to the CAPPA (Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration) website’s pages on post-secondary programs and careers in public administration. To reinforce the point, I added links to the Government of Canada’s main student employment (Student Work Experience, Coop Education) and recruitment (Post-secondary recruitment) sites and to the Ontario Public Service’s Youth and New Professionals website.

The thing I’d do differently next time – to increase my popularity – is post three pairs of pictures: Stephen Harper and Wayne Wouters, Kathleen Wynne and Peter Wallace, and Rob Ford (or Norm Kelly?) and Joe Pennachetti. The visibility of the first three and anonymity (at least to a sample of middle school students in Toronto) of the second three would have illustrated the relationship between famous politicians of the government of the day, and the public servants who serve any government.


May 7th, 2014

The Link that Disappeared: Netiquette for the 2014 Ontario Election

Government, Politics

Now that the writ for the June12 general election has been signed, I checked the Ontario Government ( and Ontario Legislature home pages. The Ontario home page previously had a highly-visible link to the Premier’s site, with a picture of the premier herself. That link has been removed.

The Premier’s website still exists. Its top news story is an announcement that the election has been called. I assume that this will be the latest news story for the next few weeks, and the website will now be frozen.

The Legislature home page has a simple announcement that the Legislature has been dissolved.

It seems to me this practice is appropriate. Keeping a link to the Premier’s website on the Ontario home page would give her an unfair advantage. While an argument might be made that the Premier’s website should have gone completely dark, with only an announcement of the election, a stronger counter-argument would be that the Premier’s website is a record of her activities as premier, which should remain available to all during an election campaign.

Right now, we can only wonder whether the hyper-partisan Harper Government will follow similar practice in next year’s election.


April 18th, 2014

Why I am Not a Porter Supporter

business, Government

When a firm goes to the government for a bailout, it is universally recognized that it must open its books to public scrutiny. But when Porter Airlines goes to the City of Toronto for authorization to fly jets from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (BBTCA) and to pay for infrastructure, because Porter is privately held, there is no requirement that it open its books. Public scrutiny of Porter’s finances and operations should be critical to any decision about whether Porter is allowed to expand its operations by providing jet service from Toronto Island. Let me explain why.

Benefit-cost analysis, which is a robust framework for such decisions, attempts to assess the value to society of public sector decisions and investments. The returns to private sector agents, for example Porter and its passengers, are one component of the value to society, and must be measured to complete the analysis.

Porter has not been forthcoming about either the details of its current operations or about the nature and distribution of the return on invested capital. It has disclosed that its current operations are profitable. Equity investors – EdgeStone Capital Partners, OMERS (the Ontario Municipal Employees’ pension plan), GE Capital, and Dancap Private Equity (whose principal is Aubry Dan, a man who chose his parents wisely) – are receiving enough of a return to stay in the game. Management, notably CEO Robert DeLuce, is presumably earning some return to its entrepreneurship. The social costs of these private returns are the noise and air pollution on the island and traffic congestion on access roads.

Porter’s business model involves quick airport access by travelers based downtown, low airport fees (since Porter Aviation Holdings controls the airport), a non-unionized workforce, and the operating economies of flying only one type of aircraft. Porter’s expansion proposal will likely increase the company’s profitability, but it will also increase the level of noise and air pollution and traffic congestion. The City is attempting to determine how much noise pollution would be involved, but that is not yet possible because the plane Bombardier is designing for Porter, the CS 100, has not yet been certified. The other major unknown is the impact of the completion of the Union-Pearson Express next year, which will decrease travel time and expense from downtown to Pearson Airport, hence eroding Porter’s advantage over its competitors who use Pearson.

If it were possible to do a benefit-cost analysis of Porter’s expansion plans, we could determine if the benefits, which will be shared between Porter’s passengers and the company, outweigh the costs, which will be borne both by those who live, work, and play, near Island Airport, and by the general taxpayer. The City of Toronto should demand that, as a precondition to any decision about expanding BBTCA, Porter make available complete data about its travel volumes, costs, and profits. If a comprehensive benefit-cost analysis using this data shows that the benefits do not outweigh the costs – putting a reasonable value on the recreational use of the island and harbour – then the expansion should not go ahead. If the data show that the benefits outweigh the costs, then Porter and its passengers should put up the money to cover the costs, which would include such things as airport access infrastructure and sound proofing affected properties.

An alternative, but not conflicting, approach to the problem is to look at it in terms of urban design. There has been a trend in a number of cities, most notably New York, to designate the waterfront as green space and to enhance its recreational use. Toronto has been following that trend through such initiatives as the revitalization of Ontario Place and the redevelopment of the West Don Lands. Locating an airport in the middle of this evolving green belt is obviously a conflicting use.

From an urban planning perspective, airports are a necessary evil: essential for transportation, but a major source of noise and air pollution and traffic congestion. The residents of the Pickering area realized this four decades ago when they formed People or Planes, the organization that successfully opposed the federal Ministry of Transport’s attempt to expropriate their land for a second Toronto airport. (Personal disclosure: my doctoral dissertation was a benefit-cost analysis that compared expansion of Pearson with the construction of a second airport in Pickering and found that Pearson expansion was clearly preferable.) Over the years, Pearson has proven itself a successful airport, with much greater terminal and runway capacity than ever imagined by the transport bureaucrats of the 1970s. The Union-Pearson Express will enhance its capacity on the ground side, replacing a great deal of automobile traffic.

If the benefit-cost analysis of expanding BBTCA were broadened to include the possibility of closing it down entirely, we might discover that the benefits of complete recreational use of the island as part of an overall greening of the waterfront outweigh the costs to Porter’s management and passengers. Were that the case, then Porter should take its business plan (Rocky Raccoon, “flying refined,” the clinking glasses and leather seats, and the smarmy radio announcer) to Pearson. Maybe it would still be competitive there.

In the absence of comprehensive data and given the uncertainty about the noise profile of the new Bombardier aircraft, as well as the impact of the Union-Pearson Express on reducing BBTCA’s locational advantage for travelers based downtown, I say no to Porter’s proposal to expand its operations.


April 10th, 2014

How to Fix U of T’s Online Course Evaluation System

Education, Living Digitally

This post is the first I have ever done about an administrative matter at this university, but this merits it. I have always been passionate about teaching. I have long experimented with ways to engage my students, moving from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” approach. As a department chair, I championed the creation of a skills development room for “guide on the side” instruction in the new management building. When my colleagues’ course evaluations arrived in my office, I immediately read through them all – including student comments – and wrote my own comments on the evaluation form and occasionally met with colleagues who needed support. I’ve noticed that my two successors continued this practice.

Student course evaluations are a vital part of teaching, providing feedback that can help us improve. The University of Toronto has now moved from paper to online course evaluations. Having done research on e-government, this looks to me like a familiar Gov 1.0 reform intended to reduce organizational cost and hopefully improve user convenience. Sometimes these reforms work out (online vehicle registration) and sometimes they are met with resistance (the recent closing of Veterans’ Affairs offices, replaced by Service Canada’s online case management).

The major problem with the online course evaluation system is that, despite providing a two week window for students to complete the form, participation rates are substantially lower than the paper-based approach. In that approach, the instructor designated a fifteen minute period during one of the last three classes of the semester, gave out the questionnaires, and absented herself while the forms were completed and then collected.

At UTSC, the Course Evaluation Team affiliated with the Centre for Teaching and Learning has provided all sorts of advice about how instructors can boost the participation rate (giving the students 15 minutes in class to go online and complete the evaluations, telling students how much evaluations matter, showing prepared powerpoints, and emailing helpful reminders). Despite all this effort, it does not appear that the participation rate is increasing to anything comparable to the rate for paper evaluations. When all this social marketing is not achieving its objective, one must ask why. I think the problem is that students are being given too long to complete the questionnaire. The end of term is a busy time and, despite all the reminders, many never get around to it. And those who do are either those who were very satisfied or very dissatisfied.

The virtue of the old paper-based system was its immediacy. One chance to complete the evaluation – now or never. Interestingly, the Rotman MBA program has combined the immediacy of the paper-based system with the cost-reduction of the online system. As in the old system, evaluations take place over a fifteen minute period determined by the instructor. Students are encouraged to bring their laptops and go online when the electronic window is opened. Participation rates are comparable to those in the paper-based system.

While this is my primary concern with the online course evaluation, there are three others. The online system uses a five-point scale, rather than the seven-point scale of the paper-based system. I understand that the literature concludes that seven-point Likert scales aren’t a great improvement on five-point Likert scales. As a chair, however, I’ve seen hundreds of evaluations and very few go much below the mid-point (perhaps because students are co-producers of their own education and a very low score is an implicit self-criticism). So a seven point scale is really a three point scale (between 4 and 7). Thus, with this skewed distribution of responses, a five point scale becomes a two point scale (between 3 and 5). Bringing back the seven point scale would provide more variance.

Second, as mentioned previously, as chair I read the evaluations carefully before returning them to faculty members. The online system does not provide a step for review by the chair. I believe it should.

Third, by virtue of being entirely online, with no need for Scantrons, the university should be able to return the evaluations to faculty members faster than the paper-based evaluations. This does not appear to be the case.

I should finally note that the online course evaluations currently have one advantage over the paper-based system. Because all the information is gathered online, it is possible to do data analysis. Thus, faculty members now can see the average departmental and faculty evaluations to compare against their own, information the paper-based system never provided.

Online course evaluations, like many other instances of moving in-person or paper-based processes online, have the potential to increase efficiency, reduce cost, and provide more information. The U of T’s online course evaluation system, I regret to say, has not yet realized that potential.


April 4th, 2014

Guide for Innovative Public Servants Just Published

Government, Innovation

The IBM Center for the Business of Government has just published my report The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants. In it, I discuss both shifts and continuities in public sector innovation over the last two decades, using applications to the Harvard Kennedy School’s innovation awards as well as sources from other countries. The report presents my major findings as well as implications for practitioners and researchers.

Here is a link to its page on the IBM Center website: Links on the top left corner of the page enable you to download the report in its entirety or order free hard copies.

The report itself is based on my book, The Persistence of Innovation in Government, which will be published next month by Brookings. I will post about the book when it becomes available.