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Eyes on Evidence: What We Heard

We all benefit when governments make policy decisions informed by the best available evidence. Importantly, recent years have seen an increase in the call for evidence from policy actors across all levels of government in the Canadian federation. But conversations about evidence-informed decision-making tend to devote little focus to the public’s ability to understand the relationship between evidence and policy decisions. Without transparency, the public cannot scrutinize the rationale behind government decisions and political commitments to evidence-informed decision-making remain difficult to assess.

In our Eyes on Evidence research series, we used an established framework to explore the transparency of evidence usage in policy- making across both federal and provincial levels of government. Simply put, the framework asks: can the evidence behind policy decisions be found by the public? Our assessment found that policies across the Canadian federation fare poorly when it comes to the transparency of evidence usage, meaning that it is difficult for someone outside government to find the evidence informing federal and provincial policies.

However, we recognize that the transparency framework is not a perfect measure and that transparency of evidence use in policy-making may fall short for reasons we can’t see from the sidelines. As such, we met with public servants, elected representatives, and political staffers to discuss our findings and to better understand the internal challenges or barriers that impede transparency in policy-making.

In this report, we share key insights gleaned from federal and provincial discussions and reflect on whether government systems, structures, and resources are equipped to deliver on commitments to evidence-informed decision-making in a manner that is accessible to the general public.

Key Findings

There are challenges around public communication practices
  • Our findings often came as a surprise: many public servants had not realized how infrequently the evidence underlying policy is provided, or how inaccessible evidence can be to the public even if it does exist online.
  • There is uncertainty regarding whether there is public appetite for evidence and what the appropriate level of information is to share with the public so as to inform and not overwhelm.
  • When established guidelines for policy announcements exist, they tend to emphasize communicating government actions through simple key messages. Supporting evidence is typically not the focus in this medium, despite policy announcements often being the first opportunity the public has to encounter and assess policies.
There are challenges around government culture and processes
  • We were reassured of the chains of evidence that exist behind most policy decisions; however these often remain in internal documents. In some cases, legitimate needs for confidentiality, such as national security concerns will limit transparency.
  • Information around the testing and evaluation of policies may not be shared because the finer details are not always finalized at the time of announcement, or because of a reluctance to be specific about outcomes.
  • Public servants often lack the time and resources to analyze and synthesize policy- relevant evidence, as well as to conduct formal evaluations of policy outcomes.
  • In some cases, evidence may not be shared because a policy decision was driven primarily by overarching priorities or because of a government culture of risk aversion.
Public servants are interested in exploring ways to improve transparency
  • Public servants want to be held accountable and are interested in both exploring different mechanisms to share evidence and in learning about solutions to improve transparency in policy-making.

This report is also available in French.

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