Seen and Heard: Paul Wells on Evidence-Based Policy-Making

Katherine Jin

This week, students from School of Public Policy and Governance had the opportunity to visit Canada’s capital, network with federal policy professionals, and discuss the role of evidence in contemporary policy making. On the evening of January 21, as part of the trip, students and guests were treated to an informal but engaging conversation on the topic with Macleans columnist Paul Wells and SPPG Professor and former Clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe.

Paul Wells began by explaining the typical storyline of evidence-based policy-making as recounted by policy professionals and academics: there was once a golden age of public service, a time when evidence formed a foundation for policy, and a time when Statistics Canada was functional and respected. Public servants’ advice and expertise on issues was sought out and listened to by politicians, and bureaucrats were involved in researching, gathering evidence, and translating evidence into policy options.

Wells argues however that the story is in reality much more complex, and many unanswered questions remain. For instance, does empirical research really tell you everything? Did this golden age actually exist? And more importantly, is it even desirable for policy-making to be devoid of ideology, with politicians simply taking all their cues from technocrats?

Mel Cappe responded by acknowledging that it is indeed true that the good old days seem so great in retrospect because we all have poor memories. However, he argued that public policy officials have experienced a real movement away from being listened to and toward not being heard at all. He argued that evidence should be used to inform decisions and that in the past, politicians would at least listen to advice backed by evidence, even if they did not necessarily heed it.

The discussion then related evidence-based policy to the current crime and punishment agenda and the role of ideology and public opinion. Paul Wells pointed out that the federal government assumed that there would be evidence to support the effectiveness of tough-on-crime measures when they campaigned on it. When public servants could not find the evidence, the government gave up on seeking it. He also asked whether evidence-based policy was really the best way to approach all policy issues, citing former Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s approach of ‘muddling through’ as perhaps a legitimate decision-making strategy. Charles Lindblom’s “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” provides an interesting look at this issue.

This discussion was following by a reception which provided students of the SPPG with an excellent opportunity to connect with alumni, policy professionals, and the wider Ottawa policy community.

Katherine Jin is a 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She also holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Guelph and is currently an Editorial Assistant at the Public Policy and Governance Review. Her policy interests include federal-provincial relations, immigration policy, and Aboriginal policy.

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