Pursuing Evidence-Based Decision-Making

October 12, 2016
Shaun Young, DPhil
Senior Fellow
York Centre for Public Policy and Law

The issues faced by Canadian society are increasingly complex, multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral in nature, and global in scope and impact. To address those challenges, the Federal government has indicated that it will embrace evidence-based decision-making (EBDM). Of course, successfully pursuing such an approach is often easier said than done.

There are a number of significant challenges that accompany any effort to realize EBDM. In particular, there are various “democratic constraints” that confront decision-makers in government – i.e., matters that must be considered by those hoping to retain elected political office (Young, 2013) – including societal values, fiscal and time constraints, and short-term/long-term political strategy, to name a few.

Perhaps the most powerful such constraint is the expectation among citizens that there will be a consistent correspondence between the electorate’s expressed policy preferences and the policies implemented by the elected representatives – what Soroka and Wlezien (2010) label the “the opinion-policy relationship”.

The problem is that in any number of instances the wishes of the electorate may not correspond with the conclusions of the best available evidence. And it is generally unrealistic – and, according to some, democratically illegitimate in a noteworthy sense – to expect elected representatives to ignore the expressed wishes of their constituents (despite Edmund Burke’s argument and behaviour to the contrary). But, even if, for the sake of argument, the conclusions of the best available evidence and the expressed wishes of the electorate coincide perfectly, challenges can remain. One of the most significant of said challenges is that of capacity – that is, governments’ ability to engage in EBDM.

The issue of capacity is a topic that periodically achieves profile in public policy scholarship and, to a lesser extent, public discourse, especially following any period of “downsizing” in the public service. Importantly, capacity concerns not only governments’ financial and human (and related intellectual) resources, but also the cultures, processes and practices that provide the framework within which those resources are utilized. A government can possess all of the financial and human resources necessary to effectively pursue and realize EBDM, but that fact will be of little consequence if its culture and, consequently, practices and processes are inhospitable to EBDM.

That problem was well captured by Mel Cappe, former Clerk of the Privy Council, when he expressed a fear that some governments are essentially dismissing the need for public policy to be informed by “good science, good analysis and good evidence” (Cappe, 2013a). He observed that “some ministers have taken to offering answers to policy problems without ever having asked any questions about those problems. And if ministers get out of the habit of asking questions about policy problems and demanding serious analysis to inform their decision-making, then public servants will get out of the habit of considering such questions and, consequently, will lose the capacity to do the necessary analysis“(Cappe, 2013b: xi). According to Cappe, “The end result [of such practices] will be that governments’ capacity to address challenging policy questions will be critically undermined” (Ibid., xi-xii).

In turn, there are certain actions that governments must take if they are genuinely interested in facilitating more than an ad hoc pursuit of EBDM. Key among such actions is establishing mechanisms and processes that enable effective and timely knowledge mobilization and mandate that the policy/program development process include consideration of the “best available evidence”.

With regard to enabling effective and timely knowledge mobilization, governments can and should do more in terms of establishing formal partnerships with research centres/institutes. There currently exists a multitude of such centres/institutes that could greatly assist governments’ efforts to pursue and realize EBDM. However, it seems clear that in most cases the extent of communication between governments and research centres/institutes is (to be generous), at most, minimal and extremely irregular.

To help change that situation and also ensure that the policy development process includes a consideration of the best available evidence, governments should require that those responsible for a given policy/program proposal demonstrate that they have sought and considered the best available evidence prior to submitting the proposal for ministerial review. Such a demand could be satisfied via, for example, the completion of a form that accompanies the proposal and identifies the evidence considered, the manner in which any of that evidence has been incorporated, and the rationale for incorporating or disregarding the identified evidence.

The (relatively) recent transition in Canada to a federal government that, by all accounts, is much more receptive to/interested in EBDM than was its predecessor, is both an immensely welcomed and exciting development for advocates of EBDM. However, sincere receptiveness/interest is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the realization of EBDM. In order to make the most of the opportunity that currently presents itself and (hopefully) meaningfully advance efforts to realize EBDM, said receptiveness/interest must be accompanied by the above-noted type of changes to existing practices. Of course, the recommended changes alone will not eliminate all of the challenges associated with realizing EBDM. But there is no compelling reason to believe that in the absence of such changes EBDM will ever be anything other than a woefully under-realized aspiration.


Sources Cited

Cappe, Mel. 2013a. “Let’s Respect the ‘Faceless Bureaucrats’ Who Keep Canada Running.” Globe and Mail, April 12.

———. 2013b. “Foreword” in Shaun Young (ed.), Evidence-Based Policy-Making in Canada (Don Mills: Oxford University Press), xi-xii.

Soroka, Stuart, and Wlezien, Christopher. 2010. Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Young, Shaun. 2013. “Evidence-Based Policy-Making: The Canadian Experience” in Shaun Young (ed.), Evidence-Based Policy-Making in Canada (Don Mills: Oxford University Press), 1-25.