Faithful readers will remember that the cover story on last month’s issue was on the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service’s new study, Taking Care of Business. A few weeks ago, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) published a study of its own entitled Obstacles and Opportunities: The Importance of Small Business in Ontario. The publication of the two reports within weeks of each other was coincidental, but not entirely surprising. Lawmakers and opinion-leaders are constantly asking: what can be done to make Canadian industry more competitive in the global economy? And, more directly: what can government do (or undo) to allow industry to be more productive, more aggressive in exporting Canada’s excellent products.
Obstacles and Opportunities: The Importance of Small Business in Ontario quickly attracted attention in Ontario. Its sponsor, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, is a serious stakeholder in this discussion as it represents small business in the province—that sector represents 98 percent of total business and 66 percent of private sector employment. This is serious.
Based on a survey of its membership, the report called for a number of reforms to take place in the province. Strikingly, the cost of electricity was identified as a top priority, with a third of respondents reporting that their payments to Ontario’s producers were actually delaying or cancelling investments. No less than 38 percent of respondents said that their electricity costs were jeopardizing their ability to complete. Not surprisingly the OCC called on government to ensure that affordable energy be made available to the business sector.
The OCC made sixteen recommendations in this report, ranging from reducing the Business Education Tax to provincial-municipal cost-sharing on infrastructure. A few point directly at the services provided by the state bureaucracies at all levels. Recommendation 5 called for governments to “establish a regulatory concierge service to assist small businesses in understanding, navigating and achieving compliance with relevant regulatory requirements.” The report does not refer to BizPal, the intergovernmental service that does just that, which indicates to me that the service needs to be ramped up even more—and promoted a lot better. It is cash-starved and it’s high time all levels of government bring it up to web 2.0 standards, but more than that governments have to work a lot harder on reducing the administrative weight of complying with regulations and standards.
What also struck me was the finding that almost 40 percent of respondents had trouble filling job openings over the past 18 months because they could not find individuals with the right qualifications. This has been a perennial problem, but surely the time has come to apply new thinking to this policy challenge. The report’s more frightful finding is that “more than half of Ontario’s small businesses think that Ontario is worse off when it comes to building a 21st century workforce as compared to five years ago.”
I asked Allan O’Dette, the President and CEO of the OCC, to shed more light on his report, and you’ll find the interview a few pages deeper.
Christopher Lau has also been worried about Canada’s competitiveness. He thinks the issues are less about energy costs and more about getting businesses to think bigger. In his contribution to this month’s issue, he explores the potential for a more behaviouralist approach to getting business owners to invest in productivity and think more boldly about developing products and services for exports. It is not an easy task, and Lau knows it. Still, he points to the Fraunhoffer movement in Germany (there are two such centres in Ontario, one at McMaster University and one at Western University) and makes the argument that this method might well be implemented more widely in Canada.
This is thinking in the right direction. It matters to the team behind CGE because the magazine you are reading (in your hands or on your screen) is the product of a small business. It also matters because we recognize that without clever thinking—and, more importantly, action on behalf of the public service to indeed find the ways to support small and medium businesses grow—Canada’s economic health will indeed be imperiled. It may well be a wonderful thing to be able to access the European Common Market without the imposition of tariffs; we also need the products and services their citizens and businesses will want to buy.