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Windows of Opportunity

It was a David and Goliath story—a 17 year struggle for environmentalists, doctors and a broad-based community coalition to close all coal-powered energy plants and get coal out of Ontario. Did I mention these plants were run by Ontario Hydro, one of the biggest electric utilities in the world and one the largest corporations in Canada? As I sat in on the session, “Key Ingredients for Securing a Big Environmental Win” at the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network Annual Conference, I was taken in, inspired, and intrigued to hear John Kingdon’s seminal political science theory about policy change come to life.

For those who haven’t committed Kingdon’s theory to memory, it can be briefly summarized as follows:
  • Policy change occurs when policy windows open.
  • Policy change is most likely when at least two of the three “streams” have been addressed by advocates: how a problem is defined, what kinds of solutions are available, and the favorability of “politics”—political support, grassroots support, etc.

In his talk, Jack Gibbons, the Chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, described six key elements of the success of the Ontario campaign. I have taken the liberty of organizing them into Kingdon’s streams.

Defining the Problem: 1. A clear message- they had a few key points, particularly about how “dirty coal” was causing asthma attacks and killing people each year. 2. Addressing an important political issue- the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) was also involved in the issue, addressing deaths that could be attributed to coal and costing the economy $10 billion per year. While the politicians could ignore the environmentalists when they said that smog kills, they couldn’t ignore Ontario’s doctors saying that air pollution was a public health crisis in Ontario.

Developing a Solution: 3. A pragmatic solution- the proposed solution involved phasing out dirty coal fired power plans to cleaner-burning natural gas. The aging power plants were the single largest source of air pollution. The cost of replacement was only $1.86 per month for the typical residential customer, or the cost of a cup of coffee and a doughnut. And it didn’t ask citizens to make any lifestyle changes.

Working the Politics: 4. A credible messenger- Jack described how he would dress very conservatively in a suit and tie to look like a responsible bourgeois economist not a crazed environmentalist when meeting with the media, politicians, civil servants or the public. He also worked in the system, not entirely outside and against it. 5. Strong public support for the message- when fighting a powerful corporation and their union, you can’t win just on the basis of pure reason. OCAA had to demonstrate to the politicians that the people were behind them. The OCAA was a broad coalition of more than 90 organizations that represented over six million Ontarians, and not just the usual suspects. Eleven municipalities, including the City of Toronto, public health organizations, hydro utilities, unions and faith groups as members. They utilized media, such a strategically placed billboards, to create visibility and wider awareness.

Jack’s sixth point speaks to the theory’s acknowledgement of the need for capacity among advocates to “couple” these different elements and recognize when a policy window is opening:

Persistence. Jack and OCAA stayed on the fight for 17 years. Seventeen years! One funder stuck with them the entire time, and they pieced together funding and worked as a very lean organization to see the campaign through. Not a bad reminder for funders and evaluators.

I think a seventh point could be made, too, about the strategic approach taken in when, how and where this issue was tackled. The advocates, though looking like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, knew that Ontario is not a coal producing province. Additionally, though the plants were aging out but could have continued to operate for decades producing “cheap” and dirty power.  It was a situation ripe for a policy window to open that advocates could use to try and make real progress.

Now, any short entry on this example by necessity leaves out the many stops and starts, and the times when the coalition had to double down when politicians didn’t keep their promises. While it appeared that the campaign had succeeded in 2002 with a commitment by the Premier to phase out coal by 2015, that promise required advocacy toward a legally-binding regulation in 2007. Ongoing advocacy also resulted in earlier closures than legally required, with plants closing by April 2014 instead of 2015.

As firm that evaluates and helps measure advocacy efforts, part of what this story reinforced was the degree to which tracking implementation of policies and political promises matter. Big wins can take time and investment over the longer haul. And we hope that this retrospective look back at the application of the Policy Windows theory may help others as they make forward-looking plans to address other important issues of our times.

Learn more about Kingdon’s policy windows and other theories related to advocacy and policy in Pathways for Change.

 Photo credit: Yvonne Bambrick

 Photo credit: Yvonne Bambrick



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