Publications, opinions, and speeches

Opinion

Three lessons from 25 years with the Caledon Institute

Published on 24/01/2017

Twenty-six years ago, early in our work at Maytree, we came to the decision that while we had been funding important local work to address poverty in Canada, we wanted to find ways to work for change at a scale beyond what we could accomplish directly through our small foundation. To have an impact at that level, we needed to engage with public policy, where our investments could help leverage public budgets.

We began to search for people who were leading work to understand and improve social policy. In that journey, all roads led to Ken Battle, who was then at the National Council of Welfare.

Our collaboration and partnership with Ken became the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, which we founded together in 1992. Over the past 25 years, that partnership has grown into an organization that today includes Sherri Torjman, Michael Mendelson, Melanie Burston and Anne Makhoul. Throughout this time, our teams at Caledon and Maytree have worked closely together, with the shared goal of finding solutions to poverty in Canada.

As we announced together on January 17, Ken will begin a well-deserved retirement at the end of this year. This November will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the Caledon-Maytree partnership. Maytree will become the new home for Caledon’s considerable body of work as Caledon winds down its day-to-day operations. As we prepare to take the next step in this partnership, it is worthwhile to look back at what we have learned together in the last 25 years.

One of the simple but important things we have learned in our work with Caledon is to take a broad view of “social policy.” From the outset, Ken encouraged us to look not only at the announcements that are labeled as “social policy,” but also to pay close attention to “stealth” policy-making that can live in the technical details of the tax code or other seemingly unrelated policies. We learned that these small details can have a significant impact on people’s lives, often more so than the “signature initiatives” that receive large media attention. Caledon never shied away from doing the hard work needed to understand the tax code or other technical details, and that investment has consistently paid dividends in our policy work.

Another lesson from Caledon’s work is the importance of focusing on policy-ready solutions. It is not enough to just understand and analyze an issue. To make real progress on reducing poverty and inequality, we must identify practical solutions. A good example of the importance of having policy options on hand and a willingness to speak with decision-makers came early on in Caledon’s history, when it played a critical role in transforming child benefits in the 1990s. In this work, Caledon’s contributions combined an emphasis on creativity to move beyond the status quo with a strong understanding of the practical realities of policymaking, allowing for constructive advice to the Minister and to the public service. Former Alberta Treasurer Jim Dinning often advised advocates to bring him “something I can say yes to.” Caledon has worked in that vein, arriving at the table with options backed by rigorous analysis and consideration of potential unintended consequences. This commitment to policy-ready solutions has become a calling card of Caledon’s work, and has proven its value time and again.

Finally, a consistent theme throughout Caledon’s work has been the importance of starting with solid data and evidence and using those to build conclusions. A critical lesson here has been the value of letting data speak for itself – especially when challenging conventional policy wisdom. This commitment to evidence-based policy-making rather than policy-based evidence-making can be seen more recently in Caledon’s work to “rescue” the datasets on Welfare Incomes and Social Assistance Summaries abandoned by federal cuts, work that Maytree will continue.

Over the course of this year, we will have opportunities to acknowledge the critical contributions made to Canada by the Caledon team over the past 25 years. We all owe a debt of gratitude for their commitment to reducing poverty and inequality though better public policy. Like others across the country looking to have a positive impact, our team at Maytree will look to internalize these lessons and apply them in our work as we enter this next phase of our partnership with Caledon.

Summary

As the Caledon Institute of Social Policy prepares to enter its next phase, Alan Broadbent, chair of Maytree and Caledon, looks back at what we’ve learned through our work together over the past 25 years.

Topic(s)

Evidence-based policy