Flag of Canada in the left corner Flag of Canada in the left corner
Rachael Maxwell in the center
Rachael Maxwell
Executive Director - Evidence for Democracy

Evidence-Based Decision Making for Government Policy

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Takeaways

  1. Evidence-based decision making helps governments develop key policies especially during times of crisis when outcomes are unpredictable without the aid of data.
  2. Canada’s commitments to invest more in data collection means the government will have an increased capacity to develop better policies, including economic policies.
  3. Because science-based evidence is not as subject to outside influences, it should be the main guiding principle for policies.

Action

Canada needs to hire more scientists at all levels of government. Transparency frameworks should also be built so that citizens can be well-informed of the policies that guide their lives. With more awareness and strong scientific backing, Canadian society can be more confident of government policies.


What does Evidence for Democracy do? 

Evidence for Democracy is the leading fact-driven and non-partisan non-profit that promotes and advocates for the transparent use of science-based evidence in government decision making in Canada. We advocate for evidence-informed decision making because we believe that we all benefit when governments make decisions informed by the best available scientific evidence. We achieve this through original research into issues related to evidence-informed decision-making as well as by conducting campaigns and outreach programming, particularly targeted to the science community. We also work with other partners, especially government partners at both the federal and provincial level. At E4D, we help to raise the standards of evidence for Canadians and this is done by engaging in a three-way relationship between science, society, and policy.


Why is evidence-based information and decision making important to Canadian society? 

We are living in a time which a lot of people call an infodemic. We have the wonderful advantage and liberty of having information at our fingertips, but there are trade-offs that come with that. When we talk about the importance of evidence-based information to government and for policy, we find it useful to reframe the conversation by considering what we might be missing in the absence of scientific-based evidence. For example, we have seen this with COVID-19. There are a lot of incidents that point to how not focusing on science in public policy can prove to be problematic. Throughout the pandemic, scientific evidence has helped us arrive at a range of different kinds of decisions like masking, social distancing, limitations on in-person gatherings, border and school closures, and vaccines. Imagine where we might be now if we had not relied on scientific evidence. 

“Science-based decision-making can help reduce, but not eliminate, uncertainty in decisions.”

Science-based evidence is extremely powerful, both in its reliability and credibility, but we acknowledge that it is rarely the whole picture. Science can depict possible scenarios for policymakers. An example of this is all the modeling of numbers and scenarios we have used during COVID-19. This allowed us to understand how different responses and approaches would affect the outcome of our COVID-19 trajectory. Science-based decision-making can help reduce, but not eliminate, uncertainty in decisions.


What is the importance of evidence-based information to Canada’s economy and economic policies?

This is an interesting but challenging question to answer. Evidence-based information can provide a source of stability when it comes to making decisions about spending money and stewarding public funds. There are different ways to answer this question. One way is to look at it in terms of science informing economic policy. The other way is to look at it as policy informing science. I am going to speak mainly to the first one.

Evidence is a very useful anchor in policy decisions. We need to unpack the underlying qualities that evidence-based information and economic policy are subject to, and they are subject to different kinds of influences. Science and research can often take place over long periods of time, and for the most part, happen far away from the public eye. It is not every day that you hear about the scientists toiling away in their labs and collecting their data. This is not the case with economic policy and with government decisions around spending. Economic policy can never escape the view of the public and is very subject to political changes and motivations. It is very often tied to elections and government spending cycles.

“Evidence-based information generated by scientific research is not subject to the dramatic political fluctuations that economic policy often is.”

On the other hand, evidence-based information generated by scientific research is not subject to the dramatic political fluctuations that economic policy often is. This is not to say that science is completely neutral; it is just not subject to these influences in the same way that economic policy is. 

People ask me often about the effects of political regimes on science and evidence. In this context, people are often referring to Canada under the Stephen Harper administration and the US under the Donald Trump administration. There are certainly difficult moments for science and evidence but the more important thing to take away here is that science as a knowledge system is incredibly strong. It is stronger than politics, temporary leaders, and political regimes. That is the kind of strength that all parties should want to draw from in their policy decisions, economic or otherwise.

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What impacts do you think Canada’s recently announced investments in data infrastructure and collection will have? 

Data was an interesting thread in the 2021 Budget. Data matters for any number of reasons. It depends on who is using it and for what purpose, but from a broad perspective, data is really important and can help us draw out our blind spots and better understand how our services and programs are performing. On the government side, good data improves the chances of making better decisions. Data allows us to monitor how we are doing and how public investments are performing relative to their intent. A lot of gaps have been exposed over the course of this pandemic. We have a lot of newly-visible data to a broader audience which has brought a lot of issues to the forefront. It was not surprising to me that we saw a lot more attention given to data infrastructure and support in the new Budget, such as several investments going to Statistics Canada for better strategies and infrastructure.

“The Canadian government has made good, smart investments for their own decision making in the future.”

It has become clear to some folks over the last year that there are some significant gaps in Canada in terms of national data. Because of how the Federation works, there is a division of powers and so data is not always shared across jurisdictions very effectively. That has been a challenge for the federal government in the context of their COVID-19 response. The Canadian government has made good, smart investments for their own decision making in the future. These are forward-looking investments that will hopefully last across different governments. Better data is a non-partisan issue so I hope these are structures and strategies stay in place for the long-term.


Who and what would you pitch in 30 seconds to improve evidence-based policymaking? 

I have become really interested in the senior levels of leadership within the public service, specifically the Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers. They are the link between the elected and non-elected branches of the government and hold a lot of legitimate influence.

Trust the public to be able to digest the reasoning that goes into the policy decisions that affect their lives. My appeal to them is to hire more scientists at all levels of government and to broaden their thinking. Let us broaden our thinking around what science can contribute to the public service. This is not simply about stewarding science-based evidence into policy decisions; it is about recognizing science as a mindset or an approach to problem solving. Scientists bring an incredible ability to gather, synthesize, and make sense of complex information. This is the kind of thinking we need more broadly across the public service. The other thing I would pitch is to build transparency frameworks. Trust the public to be able to digest the reasoning that goes into the policy decisions that affect their lives. Be clear about how you arrived at that decision. We also need to fund more research into understanding misinformation at the community and national level as well as in the context of digital, media, and research literacy efforts.

Rachael Maxwell in the center
Rachael Maxwell
Executive Director - Evidence for Democracy

Bio: Rachael Maxwell is the Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy. She has been involved with a number of national not-for-profit research organizations, such as Genome Canada and Mitacs. She is also a member of the Board of the Directors at the Science and Policy Exchange. In addition, she was also a Researcher for the Government of Alberta. She has a Master of Arts degree in Cultural Policy and Arts Management from University College Dublin

Organization Profile: Evidence for Democracy (E4D) is a non-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision making in Canada. They conduct research and education campaigns to empower the science community while cultivating public and political demand for evidence-based decision-making.