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Neil Seeman: Is online betting worth the addictive risks?

Commentary

On Seinfeld, Jerry’s neighbour, Cosmo Kramer, overhears a gambling tip on the subway, runs to an off-track betting dive, slaps down a $600 30-1 bet, and wins $18,000. A thug in a trench coat then beats Kramer up until an undercover cop posing as a blind violist saves him. 

These days, with the rapid expansion of legalized online gambling across North America, Kramer-style bettors can avoid the drama and simply lose all their money while loafing in bed. We are now betting on AI-enhanced digital thoroughbreds, and the state is the betting parlour, chief enforcer, and cop. iGaming Ontario, a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), seeks to protect consumers and ensure gaming revenues stay in the provincial treasury.

How on earth did we get here? In April 2022, when Ontario legalized online gaming, mental health advocates and addiction researchers were aghast. And understandably so. Nowhere in the Registrar’s Standards for Internet Gaming could I find a reference to the word “addiction” (“Check if your spelling is correct, or try removing filters,” the site instructs me). Last January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was warned by the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation that the government did not fulfill its legal duty to consult Indigenous governments regarding the rollout of iGaming, leaving the framework open to a potential constitutional challenge. 

Whatever the addiction or legal risks, iGaming is basking in popularity as new jurisdictions move to legalize online betting, where investors can wager on the future outcome of a game or event. In March 2023, Grand View Research predicted the global online gambling market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7 percent from 2023 to 2030 to reach $153.6 billion USD by 2030. From April 2023 to March 2024 alone, iGaming wagers in Ontario totalled nearly $18 billion CAD. 

It’s no wonder Alberta is exploring how to unseat Ontario as the iGaming capital of Canada; in the words of Dale Nally, Minister of Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction, “Alberta can be a leading hub for iGaming, with a strong emphasis on openness and a free market.” But to be open about online betting demands honesty about its addictive threat.

What does the science say about iGaming and addiction risk? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies mental disorders, standardizes diagnoses, and aids in research as well as providing guidelines for evidence-based treatment. The DSM considers iGaming disorder (IGD) to be an excessive mode of Internet gaming in which individuals with IGD experience exhibit many cognitive and behavioural symptoms, such as gradual loss of control over gaming, tolerance, and withdrawal.

After reviewing 53 studies conducted in 17 countries between 2009 and 2019, Matthew Stevens and colleagues at The University of Adelaide put the worldwide prevalence of IGD at 3 percent. Other studies put the prevalence of IGD at least double that. The variability in this prevalence depends on how you measure IGD—yet another reason it requires much greater scrutiny. Some of the most frequently reported health-related associations with IGD are depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, and ADHD.

iGaming is not innovative. There is no problem solved, and there is no value creation. iGaming is a schlock-like video of slots, table games, sports betting, and the “casino experience.” It’s an industry built around how to maximize surges of dopamine in the brain.

The brain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is the pathway for addiction. Pleasure elicits dopamine flow and once an activity is associated with dopamine release, that activity is pursued again and again. Withdrawal from the activity produces a dopamine low which triggers search and pursuit of anything that will fill that void. Gambling begets gambling.

Gambling losses trigger misery, debt, and often jail time—and, sometimes, tragically, suicide. The four key principles of iGaming Ontario are safer choice, game integrity and fairness, regulatory oversight, and consumer protection. I suggest a fifth: fighting addiction, which is already a public health crisis in Canada. The potential horrors unleashed by iGaming in Ontario and the rest of Canada—on families and individuals, and on our distressed health system—should be monitored by an independent review board. If the data show iGaming to be the addiction quicksand that I predict it to be, it should shutter. Will iGaming Ontario take that bet? If not, why not?

Scott Taymun: How to strengthen Canada’s state capacity

Commentary

Much has been written over the past few months on the state of the country and the sense amongst many that “everything is broken,” including the federal government itself.  From the ArriveCan mess to evidence of foreign interference in our elections to the astonishment of Canadians witnessing 30 percent mark-ups to manage “supply contracts” under our procurement system to the immigration-housing trainwreck, the calls for an “overhaul” of the system are growing louder by the day.  

As former mandarins Mel Cappe, Kevin Lynch, and Jim Mitchell recently wrote for The Hub: “an overhaul is needed for reasons manifold and obvious to most Canadians. ” The issue, in other words, “is not whether the government of Canada needs to do things differently, but how to structure the change.”

Before we debate what and how needs to be fixed, however, I would argue we need to be more precise on what is and is not working.  

Let’s start with the positive. The vast majority of the federal government is not broken and is working quite well. While many would argue the federal government has become too big, that does not take away from the fact that there are several hundred thousand dedicated public servants doing their jobs, every day, across the country and internationally, very well. As a former CBSA executive, I remain very proud of the work my colleagues at the agency do every day to keep our border running. And, the story of effective delivery of government services on the ground extends to just about every facet of government operations—from the work our intelligence service does to food inspection to policing.

So, what is not working?  

Unfortunately for those in the “Ottawa Bubble,” it is the “machine” inside the bubble itself that appears most dysfunctional. Recent policy failures, operational failures, and management failures all appear to be rooted in Ottawa not working well. In particular, results rarely match commitments and we repeatedly see issues associated with an inability—or poor ability—to design, develop, and deliver policy, program, and operational solutions to the challenges of the day in a timely, effective manner. Whether it is the failure to properly assess and plan for the downstream impact of immigration on housing or the inability to deliver just about any major project on time, in scope, and on budget, it is important to recognize that it’s not the front-line public servant that tends to over-commit and under-deliver. 

This ability to bring together the expert resources of the federal government in support of ministers to address public policy challenges is the job of our central agencies and senior civil service. If we are facing institutional, system-level challenges in the federal government’s ability to “get things done,” both the root of the problems as well as the design and implementation of solutions must necessarily implicate our central agencies.  

Within this context, the Hub’s Sean Speer and Andrew Evans recently prompted quite the debate on how to reform the federal government to improve its capacity to deliver, making the case for a “Do Tank” attached to the Prime Minister’s Office that would involve

the establishment of a National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council comprised of relevant cabinet ministers, public servants, political staff, and possibly non-elected appointees, and supported by a dedicated PMO staff, with the mandate to strengthen policy capacity and implementation oversight on behalf of the prime minister.

Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell critiqued the idea, noting that “it would contribute to a further centralization of the federal government and in turn undermine the principles of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility.” They further argue that if we want more effective government, the federal government needs to address five key issues:

  • Political short-termism
  • Excessive centralization in the PMO
  • Improving Government operations
  • Fixing procurement
  • Strengthening policy capacity

In reviewing this list, I found it hard to disagree with most of the various arguments and observations put forward. I also found myself asking, could the system operationalize the advice put forward, and, to the extent it tried, would it fix the core of the problems hindering effective development and delivery of key initiatives? On both of these latter questions, I remain sceptical because I am not convinced these “fixes” address the core driver of what’s not working. 

PSAC workers and supporters walk a picket line in Halifax on Monday, April 24, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

As Speer notes, “A major impediment to progress on these ideas and various others is the inherent structure of the federal government and the challenge of centralized coordination on multi-departmental initiatives”. That, there, is the crux of the core problem and a longstanding issue. I recall Jocelyn Bourgon talking to middle managers in the 1990s, noting “We are all vertically accountable and horizontally challenged.”

Yet my own experience managing big, tough files is that Ottawa does not do horizontal integration well, neither across government departments, nor agencies within the same portfolio, or even, quite frankly, across different branches of the same department. It is an inherent weakness inside the “Ottawa Bubble.” 

A related yet separate problem is that Ottawa does not prioritize well. It is rare to see a government or department focused on a discrete set of clearly defined “must-do” priorities. The net result is that the “siloes” focus on their slice of the agenda and the system as a whole gets bottlenecked, particularly within central agencies (managing cabinet, decision-making, Treasury Board authorities) as well as in enabling areas such as staffing, procurement, and IT.  

Which brings me back to the idea of a “Do Tank.” Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell argue that (1) “under the model proposed by Speer and Evans, ministers would be sidelined, while the PM’s political staff would be enormously empowered and yet entirely unaccountable,” and (2) “strikingly absent from their desired model is almost any reference to ministers or the public service”. Another approach, which Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell advocate, is “going back to Westminster basics and having a cabinet of strong and empowered ministers.”

I personally do not see the two lines of thinking as mutually exclusive. It is perfectly conceivable to build a “Do Tank” in the PMO (or PCO for that matter) to help catalyze integrated policy development, planning, and prioritization across the broader system, working with PCO, Treasury Board, and others within the federal government to help “focus” the system on effective development and delivery of a discrete set of government priorities.  

The work of such a “Do Tank” would be to force the “system” to work in a more integrated, timely manner to address big problems and deliver. This could include, but not be limited to:

  • Bringing internal and external stakeholders together to do initial front-end policy and planning work on options, authorities, and delivery mechanisms;
  • working with the PMO and PCO to designate lead ministers and supporting machinery;
  • working with PCO to catalyze due diligence assessments within central agencies and across supporting departments, including work on cabinet authorities, legislative authorities, costing, timing, and implementation planning; and
  • maintaining line of sight and oversight of progress against plans and intended results.

Within government, the Do Tank concept and lead ministers could further be supported by the development of SWAT teams, by priority, built on an interdepartmental basis. The intent would be to ensure that the right civil servant players were assigned to the priority to facilitate effective coordination and delivery across and within supporting departments.

In short, we need to be precise on what needs fixing and find executable ways to implement the proposed solutions. Neither “Do Tanks” in the absence of supporting machinery on the civil service side of the equation, nor a return to an era of strong cabinet ministers is likely to do the trick. What is required is to fundamentally improve the system’s ability to effectively design, develop, and implement integrated solutions to complex public policy challenges within reasonable time frames.  

Wouldn’t it be great to see a four-year initiative designed, developed, and delivered in…four years?