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Transparency of evidence-use in decision-making is a long way off, but public servants are keen to improve

In our new What We Heard report, we summarize key takeaways from discussions with federal and provincial policy-makers on internal challenges to, and ways to improve, transparency of evidence use in government decision-making.
Transparency of evidence-use in decision making graphic.

Public understanding of how and why governments make their policy decisions requires transparency around the information that guides their decision-making. This kind of transparency has been a preoccupation for many of us over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of public health measures, and it continues to loom large in Canadian public dialogue.

In the last two months alone, we have seen numerous examples of transparency—both positive and negative—from all levels of government in Canada. From the disclosure of campaign donors by Ottawa mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney, to potential ethics violations by the Ontario government regarding plans to develop the Greenbelt, to testimonies from key cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister at the Emergencies Act inquiry, those in positions of power are having their decisions held to account, either by choice or by obligation.

Put another way, governments are being asked to “show their work.” This is a requirement we encounter throughout our education, from elementary to post-graduate, but one that decision-makers don’t often fulfill. While transparency in policy-making is crucial to ensuring the public can understand the relationship between evidence and government decisions, Canada’s record on this front is far from stellar.

At E4D, we have spent the past year diving into the issue of transparency in policy-making at the federal and provincial levels. In our Eyes on Evidence series, we applied an established transparency framework to over 200 policy announcements released by the federal government and the provincial governments of Ontario, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. Our assessment revealed that it is very difficult for someone outside the government to find the evidence informing federal and provincial policies.

However, we recognize that our 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. The natural next step for this work was to meet with public servants, political staffers, and elected representatives to discuss our findings and to better understand the internal challenges or barriers that impede transparency in policy-making.

Today, we’re thrilled to share our newest report with you: “What We Heard: Insights from federal and provincial discussions about the transparency of evidence use in policy announcements”, where we summarize key takeaways from these discussions. While we heard many different perspectives, a few stood out to us:

Our findings often came as a surprise: many provincial and federal representatives 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 (i.e. evidence is not in an easily understandable format).

We heard that policy announcements tend to focus on simple key messages about government action as opposed to the justification for a decision—in part because there is uncertainty about the appropriate level of information to inform and not overwhelm the public.

We were told about a number of barriers to transparency, including a government culture of risk aversion and a lack of time and resources to analyze policy-relevant evidence or conduct formal evaluations of policy outcomes.

Overall, it appears that government systems, structures, and resources are ill-equipped to deliver on the political commitment to evidence-informed decision-making in a manner that is accessible to the public, and internal barriers to transparency are similar across the federation. And we know the issues don’t stop there, as evidenced by a massively strained and ineffective access-to-information program. In a strong democracy, evidence-informed decision-making and transparent communication of said evidence needs to be the default rather than a nice-to-have.

We believe the Canadian federation is capable of doing better, and our discussions with public servants and political staffers reveal that we are not alone in thinking so: the majority of people we spoke to wanted to be held accountable and to improve transparency in government policy-making. Almost all provincial and federal representatives were interested in exploring different mechanisms for sharing evidence and learning about best practices. (Tip: jump to page 11 of the report for key questions and potential paths forward).

With the initial insights from these discussions, we are beginning preparations for hosting a multistakeholder roundtable to collaboratively explore ways to improve the transparency of evidence use in policy-making within governments across Canada. This open dialogue will inform the development of a toolkit that will include best practices to improve transparency in ways that are practical to both policy-makers and citizens alike. We look forward to sharing this resource with you next year!

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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