Policy for hire
Here’s a little regime-change advice that could make a big difference in this country under a new federal government: let’s start making our own policy.
Sounds pretty dry, hey? But the fact is, having a government use its own people to devise, define and implement government direction should be a matter of course.
Up until a week before the federal election, I thought we were doing exactly that — that somewhere within the great Canadian public service, educated and experienced policy wonks were, well, wonking away at the theoretical and practical foundation of federal law. They’d use evidence-based analysis to set a home-grown direction for fisheries policy, monetary policy, things like that.
But then I heard from a former federal policy specialist talk about an interesting sea change under the Harper government — the outsourcing of policy planning.
Instead of asking public servants to consider policy, the former government was essentially depending on outside research, often from right-of-centre thinktanks, to support taking the policy directions the government was already in favour of anyway.
Anyone who has read my columns for an extended period knows I already have concerns about the growth of think-tanks in this country, not the least because, in Canada, they are considered charitable organizations, and are able to hand out tax receipts for donors. The think-tanks argue that they do independent research; that may well be the case, but while the research may be independent, the choice of what is to be studied seems to regularly align with the philosophical direction of the think-tank itself.
As I’ve pointed out, Atlantic think-tanks study things like the value of getting rid of international tariffs, but never seem to quantify the financial value of having seasonal workforces ready and at hand because those workers stay in a low employment area thanks to EI. There aren’t studies on the net benefit to fishing companies of having workers available in a region for the whole year, while those same fishing companies pay workers for only a few months of that time.
But back to policy: after hearing about policy outsourcing di- rectly, I began to see more and more mentions of the problem in news stories across the country, a couple of mentions in the last week alone. It’s not sexy, it’s not scandal, and it’s not flashy.
But if we have the internal tools to do our own evidencebased policy research already in house, why not have impartial public servants, economists and policy specialists do the work, instead of having someone outside the government, with their own ideological direction, calling the tune?
At least that way, the government would be able to start with a clean slate.
Oh, and the use of think-tanks as a source of policy? That might explain why some charities, environmental groups and free speech organizations were being audited by the Canadian Revenue Agency over their political activities, while right-leaning think tanks were not.
They didn’t have to actually do any political activity, if all they were doing was serving up ideologically-tasty policy on a plate.
Atlantic think-tanks study things like the value of getting rid of international tariffs, but never seem to quantify the financial value of having seasonal workforces ready and at hand because those workers stay in a low employment area thanks to EI.