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President's Message

“Big Governments and Little Analysts” is the title of an article in the June 1995 issue of Physics Today by Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. He served a year recently in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and his experiences help him understand “why the analyses prepared by some NGOs are so often more well-researched and cogent than those prepared within the government. The conditions under which non-government analysts work allow them to … [use the resources available to them] … much more effectively than the distracted government officials are able to”.

Problems faced by White House officials (and we can be sure that the situation is similar in our own federal and provincial governments) include:

  1. “a mode of operation that shreds time into almost useless bits; e.g., meetings on major policy issues are called on a few hours’ notice, making it impossible to study and prepare properly”;

  2. “the interagency decision-making process is usually inconclusive, because a decision on any significant new proposal cannot be made at the working level without a consensus of the key departments. Failing a consensus, the issue can be pushed up to the next higher level in the government -ultimately to the President”;

  3. “the greatest consumer of energy at the upper levels of government is fighting over turf. In the short run at least, the perception of power in the government depends more on the size of one’s policy domain than on what one does with that power … one unfortunate result is that overwhelmed officials who need help are often unwilling to accept help because of fears that the ‘helper’ might end up seizing a piece of their turf. I often muttered to myself in frustration, “they need help but they don’t want help!”.

Professor Frank von Hippel thus provides an explanation for the evident incompetence of government and the superior performance of NGOs in the cases that I referred to in the April 1995 SfP Bulletin (vol. 15, No. 1). there are, of course, the otHer traditional reasons for bad government. Ontarians are presently suffering from bad decisions through genuine incompetence on the one hand, and on the other, apolitical agenda that favours one narrow sector of the population at the expense of the interests of the rest.

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