This upcoming June 7 is the Ontario elections (and you should vote). Yet I haven’t figured out how to see through the veil of optimistic hot air on each party’s website, speech, and interview. Party leaders give off this impression of “my party is always right” as a way to show strength and assure their voters that they made the right choice to support their party.
However in today’s fast-paced environment where the need to act on incomplete information invariably leads to mistakes no matter who is behind the ship. The critical test is actually how leaders react to new information and address the problems that do arise. It can take a certain level of courage and respect for the public to acknowledge the big failures. Moreover, governments should learn from previous mistakes and success to do even better in the future.
I am reminded by two shows that I’ve been watching recently, Salvation and Lost in Space (no spoilers here). There’s quite a few themes in common with what leaders face today: Lack/asymmetry of information, bad communication, and deadlines (how anything in life gets done). For example in Salvation, if the asteroid hits earth, who gets to choose what course of action to take? Everyone is impacted in varying ways depending on the action taken. Or, for Lost in Space, whether someone should risk their own life to save another’s? To save all the remaining survivors? Each decision will arrive at a different conclusion and so careful consideration must be given (unless you live in Edeard‘s world where everyone reaches enlightenment, although technically, this too has side effects on the normal world).
Ultimately, the point of an election is deciding the leaders who will bear the burden of making these difficult trade-offs. With the great power of democracy, it is thus each citizen’s duty to cast their vote. However this can be challenging since it requires each citizen to perform their own research and due diligence.
Even though we say technology makes the world so much more convenient to live in, there’s only so little time in the day. Think of the people who work two jobs just to get by: The fact that they have two jobs means that it’s highly unlikely they can afford to splurge on technology. How can they then possibly have the time and access to information to learn more about each candidate? At this point, it’s more likely that which ever candidate can do their best to appeal to emotions, or which ever is the most relatable, is the candidate that will score a tick beside their name. And that might not be the best choice.
This might sound extreme but according to one government report, 30.4% of Ontario workers are vulnerable (income is less than half of the median income). This was more than I expected. Another report shows that younger voters (mainly 18-24) are among the least likely to vote. Thus it makes sense to make information more accessible to everyone.
For me there’s two main signals I look for in candidates, both of which I think are equally important. The way the leader handles interviews and debates gives me a sense of their values and long-term direction. On the other hand, the policies provide the details of how they will turn their long-term vision into reality. I tried to think of suggestions that would make it easier to identify and analyze candidates based on these two signals.
Better access to information
One thing I hate about debates is that every topic is discussed at such a high-level that there’s no easy way of determining who’s right. When candidates do pull out a fact, I wonder how much weight actually holds. Thus there should be an easy way for citizens to have access to objective data regarding each major issue so that they can make a decision for themselves. This is a challenging problem due to the massive amount of data to be gathered, fact-checked, and organized. Some data is not even publicly available.
News websites should provide more in-text citations so that readers can read the original source for more information if they wanted to. Governments should publish more details about the projects that are currently ongoing. Most importantly, governments should make it easier for people to find what they are looking for by improving search and creating a unified website where all government reports can be found.
A better debate format
Whenever a controversy (or bragging point) is presented, the other side will interrupt to disagree, which puts an immediate roadblock on the conversation. (Just look at the skirmishes between Ford and Horwath). Instead, what if debates occurred one-on-one? Two candidates, along with a moderator, can discuss a variety of issues, how their policy will solve that issue, and pose questions for each other. This allows room for the conversation to get into more details, and puts the focus on just the two parties.
A standardization of how policies are presented would allow citizens to easily compare the policies of each party. Some mandatory items include policy name, amount of money, where funds come from or are going to. Policies should have a short title, followed by detailed explanation of a) why this policy is important, b) who/how many people will be affected by it, c) how will it improve these peoples’ lives, d) what are the side-effects of this policy. There should be an easy way to search by each property (as mentioned above) of the policy. A further enhancement would be a way to show competing policies from each party regarding the same issue. This could be a table to highlight the similarities and differences of how each party plans to address the issue.
Accountability and continued improvement
Once elected, it is key to have party leaders accountable whenever they make a promise. Thus, these policies should be archived once a premier has been elected. Furthermore, there should be some way for the premier to provide status updates on each of the policies outlined in their campaign. However, verification of the effectiveness after the policy has been implemented is a hard problem. Leaders also need to address what processes they have in place to deal with contingencies and how they plan on conducting retrospectives at the end of every project in order to learn and improve.
Elections are one of the foundations of a democratic system. In some ways it is actually good that it takes time to change because this allows for the community to voice their opinions and fully analyze new ideas to ensure the trajectory is on a positive slope. The important aspect is that citizens are persistent to make continued progress. Elections happen every few years, which provides a good opportunity to evaluate the progress made. Let’s schedule a retrospective in four years.
Special thanks to Bryan Qiu, Jonathan Truong, Mary Hu, Matthew Yoon, Sneha Patel for reading previous drafts and providing feedback.