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13 Nov

Creative thinking rewarded at the SPPG Case Competition

November 13, 2017 | By |

This year’s innovative proposal for battling child obesity won SPPG’s top prize at the annual Case Competition.

On November 3rd, some of the most eager students of the MPP programme at UofT’s School of Public Policy and Governance participated in the highly anticipated second annual Case Competition. The winning team, composed of MPP students Marvin Ferrer, Tom Piekarski, Rupinder Bagha, Clare Macdonald, and Melissa Nicholls, stood out for its creative and unconventional approach to the case.

Image Credit: Lisa Sakulensky. The winning team poses with event organizers Barry Goodwin and Janet Mason; judges Virginia Hatchette, Craig McFayden, Jamie Romoff, and Mary Ann Triggs; and team coach Rhonda McMichael.

The case competition was created in the fall of 2016 to provide students of the SPPG with another opportunity to apply their classroom-learned skills to a high-pressure situation that simulates responsibilities students will encounter throughout their careers. 2008-09 Ontario Public Service Visiting Fellow and Lecturer Janet Mason explained: “For a lot of the students, this will be the first time they’re looking at public policy from the point of view of implementation. A lot of people come to the programme from the perspective of advocacy, so this is really an opportunity to face the challenges of policy design.”

Associate Professor and 2015-16 Ontario Public Service Visiting Fellow Barry Goodwin further added: “My colleague Janet [Mason] and I develop the cases to present multi-faceted challenges that have tentacles everywhere – in policy, politics, law, implementation, finance. Things that are real in terms of what’s going on in the public policy world. Last year we did the wage gap, this year was child obesity.”

Indeed, each of the ten teams had 6 days to develop a policy to be implemented within the government’s Healthy Eating Strategy to fight the growing levels of child obesity in Canada. The winning Team Eight developed what Goodwin called “a creative, bold concept.” It works like a registered education savings plan for fitness activities, where the government would allot a certain sum per year to every child to be used towards sports-related expenses like joining a hockey team. “It’s unconventional, unusual, large, and not just incrementally doing a little more of what’s already happening. They were a very solid team, they were very professional in the presentation of it. It was a combination of a creative concept and a really solid presentation.”

Image Credit: Lisa Sakulensky Event judges Virginia Hatchette, Mary Ann Triggs, Jamie Romoff, and Craig McFayden examine case.

We caught up with the team after they received the happy news for a few questions about their experience with the Competition.


You were one of the teams with a more innovative approach to the case. Where did the idea for the programme come from?

Clare Macdonald: We had a lot of discussions about ideas that wouldn’t have worked in comparison to this one. So we really bounced it back and forth – looking at benefits, risks.


What were some of the other options you decided wouldn’t work? Why did you choose this one?

Rupinder Bagha: We had one really innovative one!

Tom Piekarski: I stumbled upon it in the deep recesses of the Internet. So there’s this thought that if you pair food items in the supermarket on the not-so-nutritional scale with healthier items, you might end up increasing the sale of those nutritional items. You put bananas near the cereal, so if someone is totally ignoring produce, this might give them an incentive to buy a healthier option. Obviously the problem with that is supermarkets need to physically restructure, they need to retrain…

Bagha: The incentives for the supermarkets to undertake this weren’t clear.

Melissa Nicholls: We were also worried that it might go the other way. Someone looking for bananas might see the cereal aisle and buy corn puffs. So we thought that was definitely really… fresh, but we weren’t sure how it would play out.

Marvin Ferrer: The nutritional portion of our presentation was initially a whole other option. We realized that going just fitness alone wasn’t going to do the trick – some combination of the two was going to be the most effective.

Bagha: We initially had three very distinct options – one of them was FIT, one of them was that [nutritional aspect], and one of them was this other enhancement of an existing programme. We realized that in presenting that way made it confusing which option we were really advocating for.

Ferrer: The whole time we were constrained by the role the government holds. What can the government really do to make supermarkets rearrange their shelves? What can the federal government in health and social policy? That’s the realm of provincial governments – you cannot constitutionally step on people’s toes that way. Those were some things we had to keep in mind.


Were there any limitations that you guys particularly struggled with, coming up with this?

Ferrer: As the federal government, we can’t tell provincial nurses what to do. So we can set out some broad guidelines, that this money is meant to be dedicated for nurses in schools to deal with nutrition or what have you, but we can’t dictate terms.

Bagha: And on the side of FIT, I think the actual logistics were tricky – they caught us on this in some of the questions. Implementing that trust system so that it worked for people and wasn’t flawed, or couldn’t be hacked – that was hard.

Nicholls: The management side of FIT was definitely the most challenging.

Why did you decide to partake in this? What does the competition mean to you?

Macdonald: I think at SPPG they really encourage people to get involved in extracurriculars, and this is one of the things that they push. It’s a great experience that’s not too intimidating for first-timers.

Ferrer: It’s very good practical application of the things that we learned in school. I did it last year, and it felt like I knew nothing, because I was two months into the programme. So I wanted to do it again – just because I feel like you learn a lot in a year.


Did you feel better equipped coming in the second time?

Ferrer: Oh, hands down. And I think they’ll feel the same next year.


Are the rest of you going to participate again next year?

All, in chorus: Absolutely!

Nicholls: I was speaking to Marvin as well. And for being a public advisor or analyst, it’s important to be able to communicate ideas effectively and efficiently and this definitely gives the practical experience needed to do well in that realm.


Did doing this work also help you engage better or more in-depth with some of the material you were studying in class?

Piekarski: It’s hard to see how those things fit together into a larger coherent picture. This being the first time we’re really sort of asked to analyse this very specific problem and come up with a policy recommendation, definitely the answer is yes. I’m definitely looking back at some of the material in econ and stats and other courses thinking, ‘It may seem very unclear now, but I can see where this is heading, and how eventually I’ll be able to apply these concepts.’ It’s still pretty murky, admittedly, but I’ll get there.