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 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.


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.