How will Northern [Ontario] Policy Institute make a difference? – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (July 8, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Two former White House policy wonks who specialize in budgets wrote recently that they were “flabbergasted by how blindly” governments spend money. Their analysis showed that often in government very little time is devoted to finding out if programs actually work or accomplish anything.

Surprised? Well, here’s what Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland have to say in this month’s Atlantic magazine: “Less than $1 out of every $100 is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.”

Which us brings to Ontario’s newly-created Northern Policy Institute, which announced last week the appointment of a Halifax-based policy wonk as its first president. The hiring of Charles Cirtwill, an experienced analyst with degrees in public administration and law, promises to bring a fresh perspective to the well-known structural problems that hinder the North’s economy.

NPI, which is getting off the ground with a $5-million provincial stipend, is to have offices at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University and Sudbury’s Laurentian. Cirtwill starts his new position in September.

According to an NPI news release, Cirtwill will initially be busy “hiring staff, forming the organization’s internal structure, and engaging with Northern Ontario’s communities to learn more about the successes they have to share, and to hear, first-hand, about the challenges they want help addressing.”

Forgive us if we are feeling a bit flabbergasted.

We recall that only five years ago, former LU president Bob Rosehart, on behalf of the province, neatly summarized Northern Ontario’s goals, needs and many challenges in an exhaustive 75-page report.

Though Rosehart’s report was well-received, much of the information it contained was very old news indeed to most who follow the state of the North, including the municipal politicians, business leaders, and other movers and shakers he consulted while writing it.

It was hardly surprising, for instance, that forestry mills were struggling and that key infrastructure like roads and hydro transmission lines were in dire need of upgrading. Presumably, neither was any of this information news to the province.

Though Rosehart’s document was not, obviously, intended as an indictment of provincial inaction, cynics could have been forgiven for viewing it that way.

To be fair, some of the issues Rosehart thoroughly documented are now being worked on, such as the proposal for a new 240,000-volt transmission line between Thunder Bay and Wawa.

And some long-idled forestry operations are either being resurrected or are in the process of making a switch to produce other things, like energy pellets and dissolving pulp, an ingredient in textiles.

The question is, are well-meaning documents like the one Rosehart produced a catalyst for resurgence, or would these things have happened anyway?

The Northern Policy Institute is a well-meaning agency and Cirtwill seems well qualified. But one can’t help feeling that, even before it starts, the organization he is to lead is redundant, unnecessary.

“We want,” the agency said last week, “NPI to be the go-to place for thinkers looking to share their ideas and communities looking to use them.”

What, like the ready-made stuff in the Rosehart report?

“We don’t need a policy institute to tell us what we already know,” Northern NDP MPP Gilles Bisson observed plainly.

What would U.S. budget experts Orszag and Bridgeland make of NPI’s creation? Perhaps they would argue that the money could be spent on more tangible things.

Northern Ontario is immense geographically, but in a community-sense it is like one big small town. All the players know each other, from mayors to policy wonks at LU and Laurentian.

Cirtwill certainly has his work cut out for him to show that NPI is more than a just a continuation of what’s already been well said and well documented.