DONNER PRIZE Q&A

Nicholson pulls back curtain on how Donner Prize finalists make the cut

Peter Nicholson talks about heading up this year's Donner Prize jury and what it's like to judge for the best public policy book of the year.

Peter Nicholson: 'The truth is that responsible policy cannot be analysed or conveyed in 140 characters. Book-length consideration of the type exemplified by the Donner finalists is in fact essential as today’s policy context becomes ever more complex.' Photograph courtesy of the Donner Prize Foundation

By KATE MALLOY

PUBLISHED : Monday, May 15, 2017 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—The way Peter Nicholson sees it, people in government and politics need to read more and as this year’s jury chair of the prestigious $50,000 Donner Prize for the best public policy book of the year, he can say that. He’s got credibility. He taught computer science at the University of Minnesota, was a Nova Scotia MLA, deputy chief of staff to prime minister Paul Martin, held senior positions with the Scotiabank, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and he was the first chief executive officer of the Council of Canadian Academies.

“Unfortunately, the pace of government today—as with the web-based pace of almost everything—leaves too little time for the kind of reflection that only extensive and intensive reading provides, and that was required when I entered the public service in the 1970s. I was in and out of government five times over the intervening years and with each return I saw a decrease in the volume and often the quality of written policy analysis that was reaching ministers. The question remains as to whether this trend has actually diminished the quality of policy decisions and, on that, thoughtful people will differ. I think it would make a good subject for a future Donner Prize candidate,” said Mr. Nicholson, who judged this year’s Donner Prize entries along with Jean-Marie Dufour, Jennifer A. Jeffs, and Donald J. Savoie.

The winner will be announced on May 15 in Toronto.

The $50,000 Donner Prize award goes to the author of the best Canadian public policy book of the year. You’re this year’s jury chair. What is your job as jury chair and why did you want it?

  

“The jury for the prize is selected by the Donner Foundation and I am honoured to have been asked to serve as chair this year. We are five individuals from a variety of backgrounds with perhaps only one common characteristic—an abiding interest in Canadian public policy.”

How would describe this year’s five submissions and why are they the finalists: L’intégration des services en santé: une approche populationnelle (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile); Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World (Juliet Johnson); Critical Thinking in the Information Age (Daniel J. Levitin); Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (Alex Marland); and A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices (Sandra Martin)?

“We began with approximately 80 submitted titles this year—all published in 2016; authored by Canadian citizens; and on themes relevant to Canadian public policy. Our assessment was based on three principal criteria: the importance and timeliness of the subject; the soundness and originality of the policy analysis; and the quality of presentation: in particular, its accessibility to an informed general audience. We divided the submissions more or less randomly and equally among ourselves and, after reading, met to narrow the field to nine titles that each juror read and rated according to the three key criteria. Following extensive discussion—and some spirited debate—we were able to agree unanimously on a winner and four runners-up. In no order, the five finalists are:

  • L’intégration des services en santé—an exceptionally well-informed practical perspective focused on how to integrate the variety of health services for our growing aged population with chronic conditions.
  • Priests of Prosperity—a deeply researched account of the adoption (within limits) of the western model of central banking by post-Communist Eastern European countries. There are valuable lessons as to the conditions that can permit, or frustrate, the transfer of ‘institutional technology’ across cultural and political divides.
  • A Field Guide to Lies—already the winner of this year’s National Business Book Award, this is a highly accessible aid in understanding the statistical and logical deceptions and/or outright falsehoods sometimes employed by advocates of particular positions; leaving the reader well-armed to navigate a world of ‘alternative facts.’
  • Brand Command—explains in authoritative detail the increasingly prevalent techniques in government today of branding and associated message control by the ‘centre.” While based on evidence from the Harper government, the internal logic of “brand command” explains why broadly similar techniques are likely to be adopted by governments of all stripes.
  • A Good Death—a gripping account, written in journalistic style, of the heart-rending issues that confront those with terminal suffering, their loved ones, and the policy makers who must adjudicate one of the most difficult ethical issues of our time. Although the book was finished shortly before passage of Bill C-14 in June, 2016, that legislation has not ended debate as to whether its conditions are too restrictive or too permissive. This book provides much of relevance to consider.”

The Toronto Star says the Donner-winning books “tend to have far-reaching influence on government and industry.” How do you know the Donner Prize influences Canadian public policy? And do you have examples, specifically?

  

“Good public policy is the result of many perspectives and influences—some explicit, but many implicit, based on society’s experience, understanding and values, each of which evolves continuously and interactively. Although some Donner Prize winners appear to have had a more immediate and explicit impact on policy, a few titles come to mind with immediate and explicit impact on policy.

“Doug Saunders 2010 winning book Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World addresses migration which has emerged as one of the key divisive issues in politics; John Helliwell’s 2002 win Globalization and Well-being is at the forefront of an emerging branch of economics that gains notice. Michael Trebilock’s 2014 Dealing with Losers: The Political Economy of Policy Transitions provides us with a great roadmap. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our 2012 winner, Jeffrey Simpson: Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health-Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century, and how we will survive the demographic shift we’re experiencing, which continues to be one of the most pressing issues facing government today.

“The truth is that responsible policy cannot be analysed or conveyed in 140 characters. Book-length consideration of the type exemplified by the Donner finalists is in fact essential as today’s policy context becomes ever more complex.”

Do you think people in government and politics read enough and did you when you were in government and politics?

  

“Unfortunately, the pace of government today—as with the web-based pace of almost everything—leaves too little time for the kind of reflection that only extensive and intensive reading provides, and that was required when I entered the public service in the 1970s. I was in and out of government five times over the intervening years and with each return I saw a decrease in the volume and often the quality of written policy analysis that was reaching ministers. The question remains as to whether this trend has actually diminished the quality of policy decisions and, on that, thoughtful people will differ. I think it would make a good subject for a future Donner Prize candidate.”

The Donner Prize has been around since 1998. So that’s a lot of books. How many books have been judged over the years, in total?

“The total number of submissions over the 20-year history of the prize is 1,138, of which there have been 99 finalists (winners and runners-up). They constitute a remarkable library of policy wisdom and an archive of the issues that have pre-occupied Canadians over the last two decades.”

How many submissions do you receive each year and is it difficult to come up with a short list?

“The annual total number of titles initially nominated is currently running about 80, but these are whittled down to about 10 by the jury (and by the prize managers in those cases where a book fails to meet certain objective technical criteria.) The finalists—which receive cash awards and the prestige that comes with selection—typically number four to six. The selection of a shortlist, and especially the winner, is never easy. The quality of 10 to 20 per cent of submissions is invariably high and jurors will always differ in taste and judgment. But based on my experience, discussion by a jury of open-minded individuals can come to fair consensus with a tolerable amount of friendly discord. We ended up this year still talking to one another!”

How long does it take to come up with a short list?

“We each received all the submitted titles by mid-December; got down to the heavy task of reading our assigned bunch; then agreed during a discussion in mid-February on a ‘long short-list’ of nine; followed by more heavy reading and individual assessment; and met finally in early March to select the winner and runners-up. Obviously, the Donner Prize jury membership is recommended only for those who like to read and have a taste for an eclectic range of policy scholarship.”

How do you come up with the jurors?

“This is a process involving chairman emeritus Allan Gotlieb, chair Ken Whyte, Donner Foundation staff, and myself. We are mindful of the need for regional representation and some variety of policy experience—especially through academic, civil service, elected official or with a think tank. We are lucky the jury has been a mix of people with exemplary academic credentials, research abilities, leadership skills, and policymaking experience. They have had a balance of domestic and international knowledge and also regional representation. They have proven to be people who can recognize good ideas and wise recommendations, no matter whether they come from academics, think tank analysts, or journalists. We have had individuals who are passionate about the power of well-presented arguments and the difference that sound, evidence-based public policy can make in the world.”

How do the books encourage an open exchange of ideas?

“The criteria for selection of the Donner Prizes should ensure that the chosen finalists are timely, relevant, and broadly accessible. The publicity given to the competition, and to the winners (for example, though an interview like this one) will, we hope, create sufficient awareness to attract readers and discussion, both online and off. That’s really the bottom line. You can only have an open exchange of ideas if people take the time to acquaint themselves with some ideas in the first place.”

Since 1967, the Donner Foundation has contributed more than $100-million to more than 1,000 projects across Canada. How important is the Donner Prize?

“In the last 67 years, the Donner Foundation has directed over $150-million to almost 2,500 projects addressing Canada’s most pressing issues, ranging from marine conservation to excellence in the delivery of social services. The foundation provides ongoing support to think tanks that analyze social and economic challenges and present public policy solutions. In the 1970s, the foundation historically supported indigenous studies programs; the foundation also supports reconciliation.

“William H. Donner, a visitor to this country, had a deep appreciation of Canada. In his lifetime this manifested itself in financial support for Dr. Wilder Penfield and McGill; he entrusted the foundation and legacy to his descendants who today are in their 5th generation and govern”

The Hill Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  
  



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