In New Directions for Intelligent Government in Canada: Papers in Honour of Ian Stewart, Don Drummond reflects on the state of public policy analysis in Canada and whether the rigour of policy analysis that existed in the past still exists today though he wisely cautions that “tales of the good old days are often the product of bad memories.” He comments particularly on the state of economic public policy analysis at the various sources: the local, provincial, and federal government levels as well as universities, think tanks, the private sector and the media and composes what could be termed a Canadian lament for economic public policy analysis.
He observes that the most interesting economic and political developments will probably occur at the local level over the next decade but that level is the most poorly resourced and organized to apply any analysis to the decisions that they make. As for the media, there are few investigative or editorial writers left to “opine on policy matters” and as for the private sector – well, aside from his previous employer, the TD bank, the private sector contribution to policy analysis has also been slight. As for the think tanks, there are not that many of them relative to the United States and what exists is marked by a fair degree of ideology driving results rather than an effort at unbiased or non-partisan analysis.
Then we come to the federal government where there was a past of extensive economic public policy analysis (eg. The research for the GST or the FTA agreements) but which now is very dismal. Reasons for the federal decline in policy analysis include the drop in resources in the wake of the 1990s program review – which Don Drummond admits he played a role in – and the growing divide between the political side and civil service side of government. As for the provinces, they have had a great deal of responsibility devolved down to them but they also do not have a great deal of policy capacity – moreover, there is no cohesive attempt to analyze policy at the provincial level in the wake of the federal devolution.
As for the academics, well in economics the policy capacity there is concentrated in the older cohorts and there is precious little coming up through the ranks as the profession rewards theory and technical work rather than holistic economic syntheses of public policy initiatives. Moreover, the internationalization of the profession has meant less interest in Canadian policy. As for the new multi-disciplinary policy schools that have sprung up, well that is a good sign, but they often lack the analytical economic rigour needed.
All in all, it is a rather bleak analysis but Don Drummond thinks there is hope to turn this all around. He does place part of the burden on universities who according to him must change the model and “bring together the various strands of research and work more effectively with governments and the public.” Of course, how this will be reconciled with the growing pressure on universities to restore an emphasis on undergraduate education and teaching is a policy issue left for another day.
Well, I have to agree that the economic policy analysis picture is rather bleak but then you have to ask yourself, what are the forces that have brought this about? Who benefits from the current situation? Do politicians in general want unbiased, non-partisan economic policy analysis in what has become an increasingly more ideological and short attention span world? Governments at the federal, provincial, and local level are probably not that keen on funding policy analysis that contradicts what they either are doing or want to do. Why base your decisions on facts and analysis when you can rely on ideology and faith? It is certainly a cheaper though short sighted way of doing it. As for the long run implications of poor analysis for society, well even the politicians know what Keynes said about the long run.
As for universities trying to fill the policy gap, their role also relies on harnessing academic expertise. However, academics providing criticism and objective policy analysis are often not viewed by governments as public servants trying to help make the best decisions but as loose cannons who are not team players. Universities in Canada are largely funded by the government, which makes them rather sensitive to government views. Moreover, Canadian governments do not have a very strong tradition of movement of academic economists into government positions to provide their expertise for short-term periods.
And what is doing economic policy work going to do for the academic economists? If policy analysis comes with research funding and course release that will generate refereed publications, it is something some might consider doing. But quite frankly, Canada has not invested as much as it would like to think it has in national economic policy research capacity. How many Canada Research Chairs have actually gone to economic policy analysis? How large is the role of economists in all of the new policy schools? Compare the economic journals and professional research infrastructure in Canadian economics with much smaller Australia or New Zealand and you will see a noticeable difference. But then, Australia and New Zealand are not next door to the United States, which is part of the reason why economics in Canada has not developed as much of its own voice.
Who loses from the current situation? Well, obviously the public interest does in the long-term because the best analysis and options for public policy are not being presented to the public. However, the public is not even aware that they have lost anything and for change to occur the voting public has to stir and ask for change. With respect to economic policy analysis, the general public often cannot tell the difference between economic policy analyzed by an economist or a political science or sociologist analyzing economic policy. Over time, professional economists in Canada have vacated the policy field to other disciplines and then wonder why all these non-economists have so much to say about economic policy. The economics profession also loses from the current situation but seems either unwilling or unable to do anything about it aside from complain that their departments do not get as many hires when it comes to university politics. Left out in Don Drummond’s article is the fact that the Canadian economics profession also needs to step up to the plate if rigourous economic policy analysis is to be restored in Canada. Are they interested?