Budget Consultation Surveys: How and Why?

A few weeks ago, I criticized the Ford Government’s budget consultation survey because it made no mention of climate change, the environment, culture, and education. I contrasted it with the federal government’s survey, which had no similar bias.

Out of curiosity, I asked the relevant public servant whether the Ford Government intended to publish the results of its survey. When they said no, I decided to take action.

A Freedom of Information Request

I filed a Freedom of Information request – something I had never done before – for the results of the Ontario survey. And, for good measure, I filed an Access to Information Request for the federal government survey. Both applications were easy to complete and had a filing fee of $5.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Ontario Finance Ministry’s Freedom of Information staff were in touch with me the day after I filed, and the next day I had a conversation with them and with staff members responsible for the survey. They decided that the response that would be easiest for them and most informative for me would be a data dump. Two weeks later they sent me the results of the English survey in a large Excel spreadsheet and the results of the French survey in a much smaller one. The work took 15 minutes of staff time, for which the charge of $7.50 was waived.

The federal Department of Finance has been in touch with me and we are currently in discussions about how to honour my request. Hopefully they, too, will agree to a data dump.

What the Numbers Show

The English survey was completed 8347 times, the French survey only 19 times. In the English survey, the box labelled “other” was often checked, and the respondents often commented about climate change, environment, and education. With the help of two friends much more adept than me at analyzing large Excel spreadsheets, I was able to gather results for the choices that were provided in the questions as well as count the number of times various topics were mentioned in the comments.

I have drafted an opinion column entitled “The Budget Ontarians Really Want,” which is awaiting publication in The Globe and Mail. When it appears I will post it here.

An Academic Article Waiting to be Written

Assuming I get the federal government data as well, I see the makings of an academic article. (I thought I was going to stop writing academic articles, but not just yet, especially when a good opportunity presents itself). The article would explore the priorities Ontarians and Canadians want to see in the 2023 budgets. The Ontario survey asked respondents only which region of the province they live in, while the federal survey had a wide range of demographic questions including location (down to the postal code), age, income, and characteristics (indigenous, visible minority, official language minority, new immigrant, 2SLGBTQ+). This would make it possible to explore differences in budget preferences by demography. The Ford Government’s unwillingness to include climate change and the environment as explicit choices could be contrasted to the climate change and environmental priorities of Ontarians on the federal survey. Finally, the priorities identified by voters could be compared to the policies announced in the Ontario and federal budgets.

Budget Consultation Surveys: Essential to Budgetary Decision-Making?

I will conclude with the view that official budget consultation surveys posted on government websites, if managed correctly, could play an essential role in budget decision-making. Consider how governments get public input when formulating a budget now. They solicit and receive briefs from interested organizations, which are always advancing the organization’s policy agenda. There is little surprising in these briefs except for policy mechanisms to serve its interests, such as a new type of tax credit. Public opinion polling about the budget suffers from the well-known problem of the difficulty of finding people willing to complete the survey, especially because of the complexity of the questions.

Twenty years ago, citizens’ assemblies were a popular idea for budget consultation. Citizens’ assemblies now seem problematic in an age of polarization and social media. How many people would be willing to engage in lengthy deliberations with a randomly-selected group of people that is guaranteed to include other people whose views they find odious? And it will be hard to keep the process from finding its way into social media.

In contrast, budget surveys posted on the government’s website give all citizens an opportunity to express their views about budget priorities directly to the government. To make these surveys effective, a few conditions must be put in place.

First, the survey should be unbiased in the sense that it includes all relevant areas of public concern and doesn’t omit those a government-of-the-day wants to ignore or de-emphasize.

Second, the survey should be well-publicized, so that citizens know it is available at an easily remembered URL for a short period of time.

Third, for the sake of fairness respondents must be limited to completing the survey only once. This may require some use of personal identity, such as registering an email address to which a key is sent to enable completion of the survey. There would have to be an iron-clad guarantee that privacy is in no way compromised by completing the survey.

Fourth, the results of the survey should be made public in a timely fashion. Better still, the raw data should be available online. It shouldn’t take a freedom of information inquiry, such as mine, to make a budget consultation public.

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