One of the key lessons we learn early on in school is the importance of citing your sources. We’re taught to provide supporting information and references to show how we reach our conclusions in writing and research assignments. It may surprise you then to learn that on this front, Canadian governments would receive a failing grade. It turns out governments across the country aren’t very good at telling us what evidence they used to inform their policies.
In a democracy, transparency in policymaking is more than a nice-to-have. It offers the public the opportunity to see what factors go into decisions that affect their daily lives, decide if they agree with the rationale shaping public policy, and ultimately, hold elected officials accountable. Transparency can come in many forms, including the public release of mandate letters by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the disclosure of donors by Ottawa mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney, and the publication of over 15,000 open datasets by the Alberta government.
Most recently, we’ve seen significant public attention paid to transparency of government action concerning the Emergencies Act. This week, the inquiry heard from key cabinet ministers and will culminate with today’s appearance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Transparency matters across all levels of government. That’s why, for the past year at Evidence for Democracy (E4D), we’ve explored the question: how do governments across Canada fare when it comes to the transparent use of evidence in decision-making?
Most recently, we assessed the transparency of evidence usage in 133 policies released by the provincial governments of Ontario, British Columbia (B.C.), and Saskatchewan in 2021. We used a transparency framework to identify evidence underlying key parts of each policy, including: What do policymakers know about the issue? What is the government’s chosen action, and why? How and when will we know if the policy has worked?
Ultimately, we found provincial policies scored low, meaning it’s very difficult for people living in Ontario, B.C., and Saskatchewan to find the evidence behind provincial policy decisions.
For example, an Ontario policy announcement about delaying the March break to reduce COVID-19 transmission scored particularly low. While the policy was clearly written, we couldn’t find any underlying evidence about the scope of the issue, how this action would address the problem, and how we (or the Education Ministry, for that matter) would know if the policy objectives had been met.
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Unfortunately, these low provincial scores are disappointing, but not surprising. They mirror results from our earlier assessment of 100 randomly selected federal policies, where we found that a majority failed to mention underlying evidence or provide a source to verify the evidence. While provincial policies scored slightly lower, the conclusion is the same: there is a major transparency issue spanning multiple levels of government in Canada.
To be clear, our transparency framework is not a perfect measure of evidence use. We recognize that just because the evidence behind a policy decision can’t be found, it doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist or wasn’t considered.
Allowing the public to understand how and why government decisions are made seems like a relatively low bar, but this is rife with complications, too. What if confidentiality is necessary due to national security or crisis-time circumstances? We also note that the onus for transparent decision-making doesn’t only fall on the government, as citizens must also actively engage in our democracy and ask for the evidence behind public policy decisions. This is no easy feat, which is why our upcoming campaign, Evidence Matters, slated for March, empowers the public to ask for, and understand, evidence.
Despite these nuances, our Eyes on Evidence series points to a clear issue: Canada’s record on government transparency is lukewarm at best. Our findings don’t exist in isolation: we see incidents of poor transparency regularly — for example, the Ontario government refuses to release its mandate letters or in a barely functioning federal access-to-information system that currently exempts the offices of the prime minister and federal ministers.
Communicating the evidence behind policy decisions should be the default, not an added bonus when time and resources permit. By improving transparency, decision-makers can renew and foster public trust, which is essential for a healthy democracy.
As winter approaches, our governments have no shortage of issues to consider. Recent months have seen rapid increases in inflation, worsening housing and food affordability, and a collapsing health-care system. Elected officials can expect to have their feet held to the fire by opposition parties to find policy solutions.
As constituents, we must also demand more of our elected representatives when it comes to transparent decision-making.
It’s time to turn up the heat.
Caitlin Fowler (senior research associate), Farah Qaiser (former director of research and policy), and Vanessa Sung (interim executive director) work at Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit.
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