So, yesterday Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth released five (!) papers on innovation, skills, and a bunch of other things. I’m sure there’s a lot of ink on these in today’s papers, mainly around proposals to raise the retirement age (which we actually did two years ago, except the Trudeau government reversed it, but now evidence-based policy FTW, as the kids say). I’ll restrict myself to some brief thoughts about two areas in particular: innovation and skills
On Innovation: I must admit I got a bit of a thrill reading page 9 of the report, in which the Council body-slams the innovation Minister’s ideas about geographically-based innovation “clusters”. They’re polite about it, “applauding” the Minister for coming up with such a great idea, but then go on to say that they’ve actually read the literature and know what works, and it ain’t clusters. Hilarious.
What do they propose instead? Well, it’s something called “innovation marketplaces”. What are those you ask? Well, to quote the report they’re “centers of technology and industry activity that are developed and driven by the private sector. An innovation marketplace brings together researchers and entrepreneurs with public and private customers around a common business challenge. These marketplaces match innovation demand from corporations and governments with innovation supply from researchers and entrepreneurs. This matchmaking strengthens supply-chain relationships and the flow of information, thereby fueling further innovation.”
If you think that sounds super hand-wavy, you are not alone. In practice, there’s some overlap with the ideas Minister Bains has been peddling for months (Artificial Intelligence! Cleantech!) but these idea are more focussed on industry and less geographically-based, both of which are Good Things. However, it still equates innovation with new product development, specifically in gee-whizzy tech areas, which is a Bad Thing. (Non-gee-whizzy sectors get their due in a separate paper on growth; a Good Thing to the extent that at least the Council conceptually understands the difference between Growth Policy and Innovation Policy. I’m yet to be convinced the Minister has such an understanding.) So there’s some overlap in ideas but considerable differences in the kinds of programs that are supposed to get us there.
But the budget’s only a couple of weeks away. How does this circle get squared? Messily, I suspect. But we’ll have to wait and see.
On Skills: According to the report, everything is going to be solved by a new agency going by the godawful name “Futureskills Lab”. As near as I can tell, this agency is going to be a lot like the Canadian Council on Learning was, only: i) more focused on skills than education (by “skills” they seem to mean tech skills – eight of the ten examples of skills used in the report are tech), ii) more focused on (industry-led) experimentation and dissemination and “what works” and iii) it’s also going to be handed the prize of finally sorting out all that Labour Market Information stuff that Don Drummond has been yelling about for years and no one trusts Statscan to get right. (I kid….Don Drummond would never raise his voice).
OK, so…there’s nothing wrong with funding lots of experimentation on skills and training. In fact, it’s a great idea. Fantastic. The over-focus on tech skills is <headdesk> inducing, but my guess is that reality will kick in after a year or two and we’ll get a broader and more sensible set of skills priorities. And there’s nothing wrong with better Labour Market Information, though I’m not particularly convinced that adopting all of Drummond’s recommendations will bring us to some kind of Labour Market Nirvana. (Short version, which maybe I should elaborate in a future blog: what Drummond mostly wants is backward-looking, which is great for economic analysis, not especially helpful for job-seekers or students looking to specialize).
But why do we need a new institution to do all this? ESDC could fund experiments and analyses thereof. Statscan could do the LMI stuff. What advantage does a new institution necessarily have? I’m not saying there are no advantages: the Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an example of an arguably unnecessary institution which nonetheless was responsible for some pretty interesting policy and delivery innovations. But the advantages are uncertain and not well-argued in the report.
And there’s another issue. The Council is keen that FutureSkills Lab be collaborative. Super collaborative. Especially with the provinces. They really like the whole Canada Institute for Health Information (CIHI) model. Well, the thing is, the federal government did try something similar a decade ago. It was called the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) – remember that? It was well-intentioned, but a political disaster because the feds set it up before actually talking to the provinces, leading the latter to essentially boycott it. More to the point, CIHI works because it is responsible (in part) to the provinces, not just the feds. If the Council recognizes the importance of this point, it is not evident in the report, which dances back and forth between saying it should “collaborate with” the Forum of Labour Market Ministers (i.e. with provincial governments) and saying it should be “accountable” to them.
I’ll stick my neck out on this one: “accountable to” will fly, “collaborate with” will not. If the federal government is going to take up this idea from the council, it needs to make clear to the provinces within the next few days if not hours that this is going to be 100% CIHI clone, accountable to provinces and feds and not a federal creature collaborating with provinces. If that doesn’t happen, regardless of the merits of more experimentation and better LMI data, this idea is going to be an expensive repeat of the CCL failure. Federalism still matters.