BREAKOUT’S REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH TO PUBLIC POLICY
What are we trying to do?
First, we are pioneering in public policy by interrogating the assumptions on which public policy thinking has been conducted in Canada. Government and near-to-government think tanks have largely appropriated policy research with dismal results, typically providing analysis without actionable recommendations. No one else is trying to see what citizens can do with opportunities to engage in changing public policy.
Second, we are attacking the cultural impediments to changing public policy. Unless you deal with the mental standstill that protects existing attitudes and behaviour, no amount of brilliant ideas and suggestions will change anything. That’s why we are focussed on the young people who have an interest in a better future, and why we alone use audio-visual means to access their digital world.
Third, we have created an initiative to reverse the decline in the civic culture caused by the disconnection between citizens and the great national institutions of the country – Parliament, government, the armed forces, higher education. This is the essence of the Canadian National Leadership Program.
We began with a love of the environment and an interest in examining environmental conservation issues in a way that would produce insights which would be useful for citizens who actually wanted to do something about their concerns. We started to understand the necessity of a relationship between research and action when we helped create the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee in the early 1970s. The CARC played a leading role in the Berger Commission Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and is still going strong today.
Since then, we have been involved in all kinds of public policy issues and have seen how little has been accomplished by the traditional approach to public policy development and the think tanks who embody it. If we’ve drawn one conclusion, it’s that their so-called recommendations have been next to useless unless citizens are given some guidance on how to take action.
For a small organization, we can claim to have had a disproportionately large impact on public policy over the last 40 years because of the approach we have taken.
Our Lake Winnipeg Basin initiative helped to dramatize the deterioration in the water quality of the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world and has mobilized local, regional and national governments in both Canada and the United States to take remedial action. We recently launched the Great Watershed Project to save the continent’s largest intercoastal marsh.
Our underground royal commission, mostly conducted by university students, produced 14 films and 16 companion books which shed light on public policy issues which continue to dominate the news today – our dysfunctional Parliament, unaccountable government, squandering of public money, mounting debt, defence procurement boondoggles, and decline in the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces. In every case, we took follow-up action to get people actively involved in searching for solutions.
How did we do that? Through the power of film. Film can capture a subject and communicate it to a vast audience with an emotional impact no written report ever could. Every school in Manitoba showed our film on the Lake Winnipeg Basin project. The CBC aired Save My Lake so often it reached over 5.3 million viewers. MPs and Senators screened our film Does Your Vote Count? Parliament held hearings because of our films on defence procurement, civil-military relations, and the condition of the Canadian Armed Forces. The Provost of the University of Alberta ordered a hundred copies of our film on university officer training at Cambridge University to convince his colleagues to support a CNLP pilot project in Edmonton. It was our promo film on the CNLP which convinced the Commander and officers of 2nd Canadian Division in Montreal to launch a CNLP program in Quebec.
Our motivation for taking a special interest in public neglect of the Canadian Armed Forces isn’t because we are pro-military but because security is the sine qua non for success in every other public policy domain. Since we ourselves participated in the 1994 defence policy review, we have watched unconscionable amounts of money being poured into studies whose purpose was purportedly to ensure Canada would have the basic military capabilities the country expects and deserves. To what end? We’re a whole generation later, and the Globe and Mail tells us the best we can expect from the newly-announced defence plan is that in ten years Canada will have about the same defence capabilities it had ten years ago – that is if the money that’s been promised is ever spent.
There is an important question for grantors to ask themselves. And for us to ask them. What’s the point of funding analysis and recommendations which don’t change anything? That’s the question we asked ourselves after we released the five documentary films of A Question of Honour, the most thorough examination of the condition of the Canadian military ever produced. We then collaborated with the Defence Management Program at Queen’s to produce Canada without Armed Forces, an analysis which attracted the personal attention of Paul Martin. Did any of this help? All the graphs show is continued decline towards another “dark decade” for the Canadian Armed Forces.
Why? Because the civic culture has changed, because citizens have become disconnected from the great national institutions of the country such as the Canadian Armed Forces. That’s not a political or economic problem, fixable by a change of government or more investment. It’s a cultural problem.
How do you change a culture? We didn’t have a clue, but we figured the place to start is with those who have the greatest stake in the future, the young men and women who will be leading Canada in ten or twenty years. Give them the leadership tools and they will get the job done.
What we didn’t realize was how tough it was going to be. What we were up against was the bureaucratic inertia of the three most recalcitrant bureaucracies in the world: the government, the military, and the universities. Not only did we have to scale the walls of each, but we then had to get them to work together. This took a lot more time and money than we had planned for – and a level of persistence no traditional public policy institution would ever have had the stomach for. But the hardest work has been done, and we can now see a path to a self-sustaining CNLP program across Canada within the next couple of years.
That’s what we’re trying to do.