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Canada, our transparency problem is bigger than we thought

In our new Eyes on Evidence report, we find that policies from British Columbia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan scored low when it comes to the transparency of evidence usage.
Canada has a transparency problem

We all benefit when governments make policy decisions informed by the best available evidence. Data, facts, and science challenge what we might consider as common sense, and help distinguish the boundaries between reality and political framing.

In recent years, governments across Canada have taken steps to increase and improve the use of evidence in policy-making. This includes Ontario’s participation in the Open Government Partnership in 2016, federal investments to bolster data infrastructure, the publication of over 15,000 open datasets by the provincial government of Alberta, and the growing network of departmental science advisors across the federal Government of Canada. In a strong democracy, not only should scientific evidence play a role in driving policy decisions, but that evidence should also be accessible to the public. Transparency in policy-making is necessary for citizens to have the opportunity to understand and scrutinize the considerations that led to a decision.

And yet, findings from our Eyes on Evidence series suggest more needs to be done. This series of reports evaluates the transparency of evidence usage in government policy-making across Canada, and we consistently find little attention is paid to the public’s ability to understand the relationship between evidence and policy decisions.

At E4D, we’ve spent this year digging into the issue of transparency in policy-making at a provincial level. Today, we’re thrilled to share our newest report with you: “Eyes On Evidence III: An assessment of the transparency of evidence usage across provincial policy announcements.”

Our report builds on our earlier work, where we adapted a framework originally developed in the U.K. by Sense About Science for the Canadian context. One year later, in Eyes on Evidence II, we applied the same transparency framework to assess a total of 100 policies, across ten federal departments and agencies. Overall, we found that federal policies scored low on transparency of evidence usage.

But in Canada, policy-making is distributed across federal, provincial, territorial and municipal jurisdictions, as well as Indigenous self-government. So we turned our eyes to the provincial level next. Now, in Eyes on Evidence III, we assessed over 100 policies issued by the governments of Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. For each policy, we asked the question: can the evidence behind provincial policy decisions be found by the public?

Based on our assessment, we found that the answer is a resounding no. Provincial policies also scored low on the transparency of evidence usage, meaning that it is difficult for people across Canada to find the evidence behind government policy.

Provincial policies often failed to mention the evidence used to make a decision, let alone provide a reference or citation for any evidence mentioned. Almost all policies scored poorly in the testing and evaluation section of our transparency framework (i.e., to determine how and when a policy has worked), and rarely explored the merits of alternative policy options, or acknowledged any absent, weak or contradictory evidence. In particular, policies from the Government of Saskatchewan—while written in plain language—scored very poorly.

We’ll dive further into our key findings in our upcoming webinar, taking place at 12:30 PM ET on Monday October 31st, 2022. Join us to share your thoughts, and together we’ll explore some of the bigger questions around transparency in policy-making.

Ultimately, our assessment demonstrates that policy-making across the Canadian federation fares poorly when it comes to the transparency of evidence usage.

But this is not the end of our Eyes on Evidence series—we believe that the Canadian federation is capable of more.

We recognize that the transparency framework is not a perfect measure. Throughout Eyes on Evidence we have spoken with public servants, political staffers, and elected representatives to explore what internal challenges or barriers may exist when it comes to implementing transparency in policy-making. We look forward to sharing key insights from both our federal and provincial discussions soon, as well as compiling best practices and ways for governments within the federation to improve transparency.

This project is being conducted in partnership with the Evidence to Action Research Institute. We thank the Trottier Family Foundation for making this work possible.


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