Publications, opinions, and speeches

Opinion

Whither Evidence?

Published on 23/04/2013

When it was revealed last week that the federal government was ending its funding of the Health Council of Canada, there was outrage but little surprise. In the wake of other cutbacks to agencies which collect and share information, new such announcements have lost their shock value.

The end of the long gun registry, the elimination of the long-form census, the termination of the National Council of Welfare and its critical poverty reports, the non-renewal of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and the cutbacks in Statistics Canada reports all signal what is now clear: the federal government does not feel it has an important national role to collect and report data and information.

There has been strong resistance to this as each termination becomes public. Police chiefs, policy developers, antipoverty workers, labour market specialists, and business leaders have all weighed in against the cuts, and in favour of a data rich society. Many have commented that it is impossible to have evidence-based policy and programs in the absence of evidence, and that policy made without evidence is risky or dangerous. Some have made a much stronger point, that this knowledge is a critical component of nation building.

But that may be so much water under the bridge, for the government is clear on its intentions, and consistent in its cutbacks on information.

So what is the solution? What can be done to preserve the soon to disappear data sources, and who is going to do it?

The Caledon Institute of Social Policy has announced that it will pick up the two main National Council of Welfare reports, Poverty Profiles and Welfare Incomes, and incorporate them in the Canada Social Report. Caledon is a relatively small social policy organization, without the large budget required to become a comprehensive data house.

There are a number of other think tanks in the country which produce statistical reports and analysis, ironically often based on the excised or soon-to-be-excised federal sources. But none of them exist at a scale or with potential resources to fill the breach. It is possible that any number of Caledons could each pick up their portion of the task, but this is a very shaky way to create the public information base we need. And because most of these organizations are private, with no large public obligation, the legitimacy of the work of some of them would be open to interpretation, to say the least.

Could the provincial governments, which are both contributors and users of the data and analysis, create a comprehensive data capability at the national level, using their own data collection as a base? The Council of the Federation may be the most likely site for a new national data collective, and it would be a good idea for them to put this on their agenda when they meet this July in Ontario.

In Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham wrote, “When feeling is the gauge, you can snap your fingers at logic.” When we are developing policy without the information that describes the reality before us, we are working in the dark, and subject to the feelings of Canadians as reported by the government. No matter what stripe of government we are talking about, this is not a good idea.

Canada has always prided itself on being smart about its public business. The retreat from data threatens that.

Related links:

Summary

When we are developing policy without the information that describes the reality before us, we are working in the dark.

Topic(s)

Evidence-based policy