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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July 15th, 2014

David Zussman’s Off and Running: The Art and Science of Transition

Government, Politics

I’ve just read Off and Running, David Zussman’s new book about electoral transitions in the Government of Canada, published by University of Toronto Press as part of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s series on public management and governance. By electoral transitions, I mean the changes that result from a general election, whether the governing party is re-elected or replaced by the opposition. Zussman’s book is, without doubt, the definitive work in this field, and it deserves high praise.

Zussman was the head of the transition team for Jean Chretien’s three governments (elected in 1993, 1997, and 2000) and could have written a monograph, and probably a book, on the basis of his experience alone. It is to his credit that he went beyond that to interview people associated with the Clark, Mulroney, Campbell, and Harper transitions. That they were willing to cooperate makes the point that planning and managing a transition is an important type of tradecraft with Canadian government. It is to their credit that these professionals, regardless of their politics, were willing to share tradecraft with one another and, thanks to this book, with the interested reader. Some of the anecdotes provided – set off in text boxes – are fascinating (such as the transition from addressing the party leader by first name to “Prime Minister”).

Another strength of Off and Running is that it takes a comprehensive life-cycle approach to transition, starting with the small transition teams appointed by party leaders several months before an election and doing their work confidentially, moving through the high profile activity of the team just before and after the election, to the completion of the transition phase during the first few months of a government’s mandate. It tells the complete story.

Off and Running is comprehensive in other ways, for example in Zussman’s frequent references to transition tradecraft in our nearby comparators, the US and the UK. In addition, Zussman has included a variety of documentary materials, such as his own briefing notes and outlines of the 1993 transition book his team prepared for Jean Chretien and the 2006 transition book Derek Burney’s team prepared for Stephen Harper.

Finally, Zussman goes beyond description to prescription for participants in the process to systemic prescription, recommending that the Harper Government rethink its restrictions on public servants during the election period, such as not making public speeches, participating in international meetings, or meeting with leaders of opposition parties.

A few final observations:

Zussman included the vetting questionnaire posed to potential ministers in 1993, which included a question about drug or alcohol abuse. It’s good to know that, if answered truthfully, it would have disqualified Rob Ford.

More and more, faculty in business schools are writing articles not books. Public management faculty, however, continue to write books. I’m glad Zussman produced a book, rather than a series of articles. His message was so wide-ranging and comprehensive that a book was the appropriate approach.

Zussman remarks that senior public servants are expected to interact with their new minister in the official language of the minister’s choice. Consistent with this practice, when he has included documents in French, he has chosen not to translate them. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that his readers should be able to handle this (and, if they can’t, there is always Google translate).

Zussman uses endnotes for referencing. I prefer in-text references that permit me to see immediately whom he is referencing and give me the option to look at the reference list to find out more. I find it inconvenient to read the text and keep flipping to the back to check references for points I found fascinating, of which there were many.

My overall and enthusiastic conclusion is that this is a superb work and a major contribution to the study of government in Canada that will be of interest to scholars, students, and practitioners. It is a must-read for both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau this summer!


June 21st, 2014

Passionately Resisting Censorship

Living Digitally, Politics

The Metropolitan Opera describes the audience for its Live in HD broadcasts as a passionate global community. Though this use of the term passionate seems to be yet another instance of its devaluation, this week’s announcement of the cancelling of next fall’s Live in HD broadcast of The Death of Klinghoffer may indeed arouse the passions of that community. I count myself a member of that community and had planned to attend that broadcast.

The Death of Klinghoffer has been criticized by Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa as a rationalization of terrorism and false moral equivalencies. Others in the Jewish community, for example Jonathan Tobin on the Commentary blog and Eve Epstein on the blog of The American Interest, a Conservative magazine, have echoed this view. Epstein is particularly scathing, calling it a “rhapsody to terrorism,” zeroing in on an aria by one of the terrorists that she claims “echoes the views of Der Sturmer, Julius Streicher’s Nazi newspaper, without a hint of irony or condemnation.” Those holding these views wanted the opera suppressed entirely.

The Anti-Defamation League took up the cause of these critics even though it concluded in its press release of June 17 that “the opera itself is not anti-Semitic.” The compromise brokered by the ADL involved including a statement from the Klinghoffer daughters in the program for live performances at the Met and cancelling the global broadcast because “there is concern that the opera could be used in foreign countries as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.” In other words, it left the Live in HD audience, both in the US and overseas, out in the cold.

In justifying this decision to composer John Adams, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb referred to “unimaginable pressure” to cancel the work. Given the Met’s difficult financial situation and increased reliance on donations (the subject of a full-page ad in the New York Times that appeared on June 20), it appears very likely that Mr. Gelb was referring to threats to withhold donations.

As a member of the passionate global community being denied an opportunity to see The Death of Klinghoffer I have several reactions.

Say that John Adams, or anyone else, had written an opera that included as its libretto text from purely anti-Semitic tracts such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Die Sturmer. I would not support producing or broadcasting it.

Most of the discussion of The Death of Klinghoffer concludes that it is not an expression of thoroughgoing anti-Semitism, but rather is a serious attempt to deal with the issues involved in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The ADL’s statement that the opera itself is not anti-Semitic seems to me consistent with that judgment. New Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini, who has seen the opera, described it in his column of June 21 as “a raw brooding work that in its brutal honesty provides a kind of tragic consolation.” Similarly, The New York Times editorial on June 20 criticizing the cancellation of the global broadcast argues that “the opera gives voice to all sides in this terrible murder, but does not offer resolutions.”

Unlike, say, The Merchant of Venice, The Death of Klinghoffer is not in the public domain, and I would like to have seen it performed to evaluate it and draw my own conclusions. I don’t want the Klinghoffer daughters, Eve Epstein, Jonathan Tobin, or the ADL preventing me from doing that.

One possibility would be for John Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman to make the libretto available on Adams’s website. It seems to me that this does not constitute making his intellectual property available for free, since the opera’s intellectual property includes both music and production. Making the libretto available would at least initiate a discussion of how the opera treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a discussion that critics in the Jewish community are so determined to suppress.

To conclude, yes I am passionate about freedom of expression, and yes I believe Adams’s opera should be protected by First Amendment values of free expression, not just in the United States, but globally.


June 13th, 2014

Why the Tea Party Narrative Failed North of the Border

Narrative, Politics

Judging by the results of the June 12 Ontario election, Senator Ted Cruz’s renunciation of his Canadian citizenship makes good sense. Ontario “Progressive” Conservative leader Tim Hudak went south to get the Tea Party narrative from Grover (“starve the beast”) Norquist and other Tea Party ideologues. When retold in Ontario, the result was a stunning failure to connect with Ontario voters. It contributed mightily to the surprising outcome of a Liberal majority.

This election has confirmed a number of propositions about the role of narrative in political campaigning. First, successful narratives cannot be only about the past, but must project into the future. The Conservatives’ (and NDP’s) narrative of Liberal corruption, based on the 2011 gas plant cancellation scandal, didn’t convince enough voters that the Liberals would continue to run a scandal-prone and wasteful government. While Premier Kathleen Wynne took responsibility for the scandal, she was also able to communicate that it happened on her predecessor Dalton McGuinty’s watch, not hers.

In contrast, the Liberals were able to show that the Conservative’s Tea Party agenda (fire 100,000 bureaucrats and cut business taxes) was a throwback to the days of Conservative premier Mike Harris. The Liberal ads morphing Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s face into Mike Harris’s created a strong visual narrative link between the Harris Government in the Nineties and a Hudak Government in this decade.

Second, language matters. In their ads, the Conservatives continually referred to the jobs that would be cut as those of bureaucrats – useless parasites, as the Tea Party would have it. The interest group opposition that arose to the Conservatives’ promise reframed parasitic bureaucrats as dedicated teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers.

Third, the Conservatives message suffered from insurmountable internal contradictions. Leader Tim Hudak took to telling his personal story of adversity in the debate and in his speeches. His own adversity could be contrasted with the misery that he was poised to inflict upon public sector workers. His promise of creating a million private sector jobs while destroying 100,000 public sector jobs raised the obvious question of why private sector jobs are more valuable to society than public sector jobs.

The million jobs promise was contradicted by an egregious mathematical mistake in his platform, namely that the million jobs were actually a million person-years of employment. This failure of economic literacy – again, the subject of Liberal attack ads – was brutally damaging to any attempt to portray Hudak as a competent manager.

Fourth, the choice of a narrator matters. The Liberals chose to have Kathleen Wynne narrate some of their attack ads and, even when a “voice of God” narrator was used, she provided the American style tag-line: “I’m Kathleen Wynne and I stand behind this message.” This narrative choice helped demonstrate a measure of toughness that previously had not been part of Wynne’s public persona, and that she hadn’t been able to display in the debate. For a female candidate with a background in the helping professions, some edge isn’t a bad thing.

As the election results were coming in last night, I noticed that Conservative party strategists were attempt to spin that Hudak ran a campaign of ideas while Wynne ran a campaign of ad hominem attacks. That’s pure spin and nothing more. Both candidates presented their ideas and attacked the ideas, record, and background of their adversary. The difference was that in this campaign Wynne was Teflon and Hudak Velcro.

With Hudak’s resignation as leader, the Conservatives should rethink their two-decade long embrace of American-style conservatism, most recently in its Tea Party manifestation. Premier Wynne faces the task of enacting an ambitious platform (for example a new pension plan and major initiatives in transportation and infrastructure), moving the provinces finances to a balanced budget, and ensuring honest and effective government by a party that enters its second decade in power. But the challenges of governing are always more stimulating than the challenges of trying to figure out how to win power.


June 2nd, 2014

The Persistence of Innovation in Government: My Latest Book

Government, Innovation

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, The Persistence of Innovation in Government, by Brookings Institution Press. The book discusses both shifts and continuities in public sector innovation over the last two decades, using applications to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Awards Program as well as data from several other countries. It also reviews the burgeoning literature on public sector innovation, discusses the latest thematic trends in public sector innovation in various policy areas, and presents an econometric explanation of the determinants of recognition for public sector innovations.

The Persistence of Innovation in Government represents the latest instance of the approach I’ve pursued for two decades in my research on innovation. I’ve attempted to take public sector innovation research, particularly using applications to innovation awards, in a quantitative direction, moving from individual or sample-sample case studies, to larger bodies of data than can initially be counted and then analyzed statistically. Other researchers have also taken this quantitative turn. My colleagues and I haven’t gone quantitative only to release our inner geek, but rather because data allows us to see whether elements of folk-wisdom about public sector innovation are actually true.

One of the shifts in public sector innovation I’ve noticed is a greater incidence of collaborations or partnerships than was the case two decades ago. This book itself reflects a three-way partnership among Brookings, the publisher; the Harvard Kennedy School, which provided data and support for my research; and the IBM Center for the Business of Government, which also provided support and concurrently published a monograph based on the research for the book (available at

The Persistence of Innovation in Government is available at Amazon or on the Brookings website at


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.