Queen's Park: Ontario legislative assembly.

Sustain ON tries to engage politicians with varying success

By Harrison Runtz

This past summer I had the privilege of working with Sustain Ontario, a non-governmental organization that works on connecting the needs/policy asks of different stakeholders in Ontario’s food networks. Sustain Ontario’s main goal is to transform our provincial food systems into more sustainable, community-oriented forms. My work was specifically related to the provincial iteration of their VoteONFood campaign. VoteONFood is an election-based effort to inform politicians on crucial areas of policy that are needed to address food systems issues. While my work focused on the provincial level, the campaign is currently targeting prospective municipal politicians. This initiative, which attempts to spread awareness of issues brought forth by experts working in these fields as producers, academics, scientists, and others, highlighted the intensely difficult task of breaking down partisanship and spreading best practices. While the issues of knowledge mobilization are many, I’ll outline two challenges that seemed particularly pertinent to the work in which I was involved.

Challenge 1: Refusal to engage

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 7.42.46 AM

The table above represents the responses collected from a survey Sustain Ontario ran via e-mail and Twitter. The survey asked politicians to respond to at least two questions (out of twelve) related to policy issues affecting Ontario food networks. While this is admittedly a small sample of respondents, the table nonetheless points to an ongoing problem faced by Sustain Ontario: trying to get the largest parties to engage with these issues. Furthermore, issues of partisanship are also reflected: the less amenable a party is to the research and findings, the less likely they are to engage with the issue.

Challenge 2: Centralized contacts

Another difficulty faced by organizations attempting to mobilize knowledge during election periods is the varying degrees to which party centralization makes candidates accessible to groups. One of the ways access seems to be controlled is through a centralization of e-mail services. While each party ran 124 candidates across Ontario, many candidates’ e-mail accounts were amalgamated under centralized portals and therefore unlisted on the campaign pages. The distribution of this centralization imitates the distribution of responses on the preceding table:

Political Party Listed E-mail Addresses Unlisted E-mail Addresses
Green 122 2
NDP 122 2
Liberal 78 46
Conservative 29 95

While the reasons behind the portal e-mail management systems are not overt, they point to a professionalization and centralization of communication systems along party lines. The candidates are still reachable through the landing pages, but it becomes harder for NGOs and other groups looking to build e-mail chains for the purposes of knowledge mobilization or to spread policy asks. In turn, this limits the effectiveness of campaigns such as VoteONFood.

How can we change systems when those who have the means to enact change won’t listen? This is not a new question, but communication contexts and capabilities change, and along with them so too do political campaigns. These periods are marked by new technological capacities to reach audiences—but also to ignore.