History of Policy Research Initiative (PRI), Privy Council Office [reprint]

Chapter 9: Policy Analysis in the Federal Government: building the forward-looking policy research capacity

Jean-Pierre Voyer

Policy Research Initiative, Privy Council Office, Government of Canadai


A decade ago, senior managers within the federal public service had a collective prise de conscience with regard to the need to reinvest in the federal governments policy capacity. A special Deputy Minister Task Force on Strengthening our Policy Capacity was established in 1995, and it subsequently issued what is commonly referred to as the Fellegi Report. This report presented a key examination of the state of the policy capacity across the federal government, and laid out a roadmap for future reinvestment in this capacity. Almost ten years after the Felligi report, what has happened?

Studies of policy analysis in government often emphasize different elements of what they understand analysis to be. A not atypical recent definition broadly describes policy analysis as the activity of thinking systematically or scientifically about policy problems, the goal of which is policy prescription (Brooks 2002: 192). Such systematic thinking is the lifeblood of the policy development process in government from issue identification and agenda setting, through policy research and policy development, to decision-making and implementation, and finally evaluation and adjustment, policy analysis is a core activity.

Rarely, of course, does the development of policy occur in the linear, rationalistic fashion suggested by this typology. While policy analysts in the federal government strive to be as professional, systematic and scientific as possible in offering their research and advice, they must have the flexibility to respond to the needs of their Ministers in circumstances that may be less than ideal. Indeed, the environment in which policy development and analysis occurs is only getting more and more complex. As Savoie has recently noted, the policy-making process is opened to an ever-wider array of stakeholders and faced with multifaceted and interconnected issues that cut across ministerial lines of responsibility (Savoie 2004).

This said, the Fellegi report a decade ago, as well as more recent interviews with senior government managers (Armstrong et al. 2002) suggest that most departments in the federal government are fairly strong in the provision of short term advice and analysis. The larger area of concern, both then and now, has been with regard to the capacity within the federal government to undertake policy analysis work focused on the medium- to longer-term. The focus of this paper will therefore be on those elements of the federal government dedicated to undertaking medium- to longer-term analytical policy work where that analysis can be more systematic and rigorous, as it is freer from the immediate day-to-day pressures of government operations. We will begin by reviewing the concerns about federal policy capacity that led to the Deputy Minister Task Force and the diagnostic offered in their report with its call for more forward-looking policy capacity. The paper will then touch on key areas of progress over the past decade, including the establishment of the Policy Research Initiative, new initiatives to build connections to the extra-governmental research community, improvements in the medium-term policy research capacity of departments, and the development of new tools for research. We conclude with a look at what may lie ahead in terms of further progress.

The Fellegi Report

By now, the story of the initial investment and enthusiasm in policy analysis within the federal government, followed by a subsequent long period of retrenchment, has become a familiar one (Pal 2001: 24; Hollander and Prince 1993). With the rapid expansion and institutionalization of policy analysis capacity beginning in the sixties and carrying on into the seventies, the federal government took a lead role in the development of policy research and analysis in Canada. It was a time of increasing investment in research and a strong faith in the power of rational, systematic analysis to make a difference. The government also invested in a number of mechanisms to harvest research from the wider policy analysis community, such as the Economic and Science Councils of Canada, various Royal Commissions, and a variety of granting mechanisms. Beginning in the mid-eighties, however, there was a shift in emphasis and resources from policy analysis to program implementation. The preoccupations with (new) public management concerns combined with fiscal restraint meant that the medium-term analysis in many policy areas was sidelined, and the in-house capacity of a number of departments declined. By the mid-1990s, following more than a decade of diminishing capacity and the recent loss of the Economic Council of Canada (a major source of medium and longer-term research for the federal government, see Dobuzinskis in this volume) and other advisory councils, concerns over the state of the federal governments policy capacity led the then Clerk of the Privy Council, Jocelyne Bourgon to launch a Deputy Minister Task Force on Strengthening our Policy Capacity. Chaired by the Government of Canadas Chief Statistician, Ivan Fellegi, the Task Force produced a milestone diagnostic of the state of the federal governments policy capacity.

The Fellegi Report stressed the continued need for a high-quality policy capacity to address key challenges faced by the Federal Government. It suggested that, in this regard, a most notable weakness centered on the capacity to undertake rigorous, longer-term strategic and horizontal analytical work. The Task Force found that most (though importantly not all) departments were generally doing little work in this area owing to a range of factors including a shortage of resources, urgent day-to-day requirements, a perceived lack of demand from senior mangers and officials, and a weak example from key central agencies. While longer-term planning may be difficult in an increasingly complex environment, the report affirmed that positioning the government to deal with longer-term issues in a coherent fashion was the central strategic issue for the government (Canada 1996: 20). It noted that such work was more likely to occur where there were dedicated internal resources (distinct from day-to-day operations), supportive external resources, useful techniques and methodologies, and where there was a strong demand for such work from senior management. The report concluded that while the bulk of such strategic work must take place within departments, the central agencies have a vital role to play in increasing the focus on strategic and major horizontal issues. Yet there is no fully effective central function that helps to define issues of strategic importance, to guide the process for developing longer term and horizontal policies, and to promote interdepartmental networks. PCO is the logical focus for such a function (Canada 1996: 39).

Canada was not the only country in the 1990s to experience concerns about the state of policy capacity within government. Similar questions were being raised in other western democracies that also experienced a significant period of fiscal pressure and emphasis on new public management (Curtain 2000). For example, in the United Kingdom Tony Blairs Labour Government released a white paper on Modernizing Government which suggested that previous emphasis on management reform had paid insufficient attention to policy capacity. Policies too often take the form of incremental change to existing systems, rather than new ideas that take the long-term view and cut across organizational boundaries to get at the root of the problem (United Kingdom 1999, p.16). The UK Government committed itself to improved horizontal and strategic policy development. Recent years have seen the establishment of a number of key new policy analysis units in that government, most notably the Prime Ministers Strategy Unit.ii

The Policy Research Initiative

Perhaps the most important development since the Fellegi Report, in terms of addressing the federal governments capacity to undertake medium-term, horizontal policy analysis, has been the establishment of the Policy Research Initiative (PRI). The PRI was launched in 1996 as a corporate effort by the Clerk and the community of Deputy Ministers to rebuilding policy capacity. The PRI first began as an interdepartmental committee of Assistant Deputy Ministers from over 30 federal departments and agencies that were asked to engage in a medium-term scanning exercise to identify future policy challenges faced by Canada. The committee prepared a report, Growth, Human Development, Social Cohesion, on the key pressure points likely to arise in Canadian society by the year 2005 as a result of shifting socio-economic trends and identified research gaps that needed to be addressed to position the government to deal with those challenges.

The experience was highly successful in many ways. Not only did it produce a report that demonstrated how policy research focused on the medium-term had much to contribute to the formulation of the policy agenda, but it also confirmed the benefits of interdepartmental collaboration in policy research. The exercise revealed the horizontal nature of many key policy challenges and the need for confronting various perspectives and analysis in establishing common diagnosis on socio-economic trends and developments facing the country. In the process of drafting the joined report, much was learned on the relative policy research capacity strengths of the various federal departments and a policy research community started to emerge, as many government policy researchers, contrary to their colleagues working on policy design or policy implementation, seldom had had real opportunities to work with their counterparts from other departments.

Following these first steps, a permanent secretariat, the Policy Research Secretariats (PRS) was established as a more formal institutionalized entity within the Government of Canada, with the mandate to support newly formed interdepartmental research networks of analysts, and to reach out to the wider policy research community of think tanks and university academic. From 1997 to 2002, the PRS was particularly active in establishing these linkages through major fora such as high-profile national policy conferences involving hundreds of government and non-government researchers and through the management of publications, such as ISUMA and TRENDSiii, which aimed to tap the contributions of scholars and other external experts on medium-term policy issues of relevance to the federal government. However, over this period, the PRS, which was renamed the PRI in 2000, was never able to reproduce the scale and climate of interdepartmental collaboration that characterized the early days of the Initiative, with the result that most of the research work emerging from the PRI during this period was from external sources to the federal government, through initiative such as the Trends Project Series. The interdepartmental networks did not generate much new research work, with the exception perhaps of a pilot project on the Knowledge-based Economy/Society, which was lead by HRDC, Industry Canada, Canadian Heritage and the Canadian International Development Agency. The KBE/S project produced three major conferences from in 1998 and 1999 with a corresponding number of volumes of proceedings and was by in large managed by the departments directly involved, with little if no direct contribution from the PRI secretariat.iv

The fact that the interdepartmental networks generated little new work is hardly surprising. Department researchers had been asked to conduct interdepartmental research work in addition to their regular departmental responsibilities and activities. No additional resources had been assigned to the research program of the interdepartmental networks, except for a small staff at the PRI who was mostly involved in coordinating activities and publications. For departments involved, the horizontal work around the first report might have been exciting but proved difficult to sustain. The creation of interdepartmental research networks was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strengthening of the federal governments capacity to undertake medium-term, horizontal policy analysis. New departmental resources had to be devoted to policy research activities.

In late 2002, the Policy Research Initiative entered a third phase, characterized by a deepened internal research capacity and increased emphasis on generating in-house knowledge products. Attached to the Privy Council Office, with oversight from the Deputy Secretary for Plans and Consultation, the PRIs core mandate today is to advance research on emerging horizontal issues that are highly relevant to the federal governments medium-term policy agenda, and to ensure the effective transfer of this knowledge to policy-makers. The PRI leads research projects, rather than primarily coordinating department-based efforts. A team of approximately twenty-five policy research analysts, from diverse academic backgrounds, works on several research projects in partnerships with participating federal departments. Projects in early 2005 centered on issues related to population aging and increased life-course flexibility, new approaches to address poverty and exclusion, the role of social capital as a policy tool, the social economy, the management of freshwater in Canada, the emergence of Canada-US cross-border regions, the need for increased Canada-US regulatory cooperation and the costs and benefits of a customs union with the United-States. Final reports for most of these projects were expected over the year. Interim research products are often featured in Horizons, the PRIs flagship publication,

While the PRI is now more focused on meeting the needs of the internal federal community, it still undertakes extensive work to build linkages between federal analysts and extra-governmental researchers. Through a partnership with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the two organizations have hosted more than a dozen research roundtables in 2003 and 2004, bringing together leading Canadian scholars with senior federal officials to address specific, targeted issues relating to the PRI horizontal projects.

Since its creation the PRI has used different means to promote horizontal collaboration and to foster a sense of community among federal researchers. Beyond its cross-cutting research projects and its publication Horizons, the PRIs contribution to supporting horizontal research collaboration extends to its leadership of the Policy Research Data Group (PRDG). The PRDG is an interdepartmental committee formed in 1998 to address data gaps that linked to medium to longer-term policy priorities. Composed of senior managers from departments with identifiable research functions together with officials from Statistics Canada and the central agencies, the PRDG manages a fund of $20 million per year allocated for the development of data needed to carry out horizontal research. Priority data projects are identified by the group and the data is then developed by Statistics Canada, primarily through surveys (such as the General Social Survey, the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada, the Workplace and Employee Survey, the Post-secondary Transition Survey, and the International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey, amongst several others). The PRDG holds regular workshops on data-related issues, where departments and external researchers can present proposals for new surveys or other data developments. The PRI chairs the PRDG and provides the Group with the necessary support and coordination.

Reaching Out to the External Policy Analysis Community

One of the principal areas of progress with regard to the policy capacity of the federal government since the Fellegi Report has been in the variety of new partnerships with extra-departmental researchers. Interviews with senior managers in 2002 (Armstrong et al. 2002) demonstrated a consensus that building such connections is no longer an area of strategic concern. The Policy Research Initiative has played a key role in building these links, but several other initiatives have played a similar role in reaching out to the wider analysis community.

The Metropolis Project represents one creative new partnership model. Launched in 1996 at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), this project sought to develop the governments analytic capacity to manage immigration and diversity by actively developing linkages to the academic community through institutionally-coordinated grant-funded research. Funded by a consortium of federal departments and agencies, including CIC and SSHRC, the project provides core funds to five university-based Centres of Excellence in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Atlantic Canada to which over 200 Canadian researchers are affiliated. In addition, the Metropolis Project has an international arm that involves partnerships with policy makers and researchers from over 20 countries, including the United States, most of Western Europe, Israel and Argentina and from the Asia-Pacific region. Knowledge generated is transferred to federal officials through annual national and international conferences, and frequent workshops and seminars. The project has been successful in building links between academics and government policy researchers, and mid-level federal managers.

Another important development in recent years has been the introduction of the Research Data Centres program. In 1998, a national task force, the Canadian Initiative on Social Statistics, recommended the creation of research facilities to give academic researchers improved access to Statistics Canada’s microdata files to allow researchers in the social sciences to build expertise in quantitative methodology and analysis and improve the availability of rigorous, policy-relevant research. In partnership with SSHRC and a number of universities, Statistics Canada has developed twelve Research Data Centres ( RDCs) located across the country. RDCs provide researchers with access, in a secure university setting, to microdata from population and household surveys. The centres are operated under the provisions of the Statistics Act in accordance with all the confidentiality rules and are accessible only to researchers with approved projects who have been sworn in under the Statistics Act as ‘deemed employees.’

The issue of knowledge transfer and building stronger bridges between government officials and researchers undertaking policy-relevant work has become a central concern for the three major federal granting agencies, including SSHRC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). For example, CIHR had a knowledge translation requirement built into its founding act in 2000. More recently SSHRC, Canadas primary research funding agency in the social sciences and humanities, has embarked on a process of transformation from a granting council to a knowledge council. By this, SSHRC means that it would remain a council that delivers grants awarded through peer review, but would also increase its support and facilitation of transfers of research knowledge to analysts and decision-makers in government, as well as other mediators and users of knowledge. Some of SSHRCs programs have already begun to stress this knowledge transfer capacity. For example, the Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program connects the knowledge produced with community-based user needs. Similarly, SSHRC has recently partnered with the PRI to organize a series of important policy-relevant roundtables bringing together academics and federal policy officials. The Council recently launched the Strategic Research Clusters Design Grants program which is advertised as the first concrete step towards its transformation as a knowledge council. The strategic clusters are national research networks, each focused on a particular theme, that enable researchers to interact, on an ongoing basis, with each other, and with research users and other stakeholders.

Although pre-dating the Fellegi report with its establishment in 1991, the Canadian Employment Research Forum (CERF) remains a reference point when looking at ways to connect the federal policy research community with the external community. CERF is a non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors of both government officials and university-based academics that was set up at the invitation, and with the financial support, of Employment and Immigration Canada in the early nineties. It has successfully brought labour market researchers together at a series of conferences and workshops, enabling academic researchers to better identify the policy needs of government officials, and for government officials to be better informed of the latest relevant academic research. CERF has grown to be a robust bridge between and among university researchers and policy researchers from the federal government. However, the initiative has lost some momentum in more recent years and activities have been limited as the federal government core funding was replaced with irregular event-based financial support.

Departmental Policy Research Capacity

Although these represent important initiatives, the Fellegi Report was particularly insistent on the importance of investing in the policy capacity within departments. What has happened to the departmental capacity since Fellegi?

Concerns remain that the medium to longer-term capacity in many departments is still weak, and that the tyranny of the urgent still predominates with much too much analysis be simply reactive and more superficial than desirable (Armstrong et al. 2002: 6-8). That said, there are clearly some departments who have made, or continued to make, strong investments in medium-term research work over the past decade.

The leaders

The Department of Finance is probably where policy analysis in the federal government has been the most stable, as the department was largely unaffected by program reviews and spending cuts. In addition to providing ongoing policy analysis in its various areas of responsibilities, Finance has always maintained a capacity to carry rigorous policy research on medium term issues. The Economic Studies and Policy Analysis Division is the focal point of that research, with working papers being published regularly on a large scope of issues.

The Bank of Canada is also staffed with a load of policy analysts, mostly economists, devoted to financial market analysis, banking issues, macroeconomics and monetary policy. The Research Department alone, where most of the work falls into the mid-term research category, is staffed with more than sixty researchers.

Over the last decade, Statistics Canada has considerably increased the quantity of analytical products coming from their data collection activities. Four groups are responsible for the bulk of the departments research publications: Business and Labour Market Analysis, Family and Labour Studies, Health Analysis and Measurement and Micro-economic Analysis. Staffed with some fifty social scientists and a few affiliated researchers from academia, these groups conduct research on various labour market topics, productivity, technology and innovation, family outcomes, and health topics. Statistics Canada researchers benefit from direct and unrestricted access to the rich data sets collected by the organization.

While commenting on the recent deterioration of the policy capacity across the federal government, the Fellegi Report noted that Human Resources Development Canada was an exception with its investment in forward-looking planning and research. The Applied Research Branch, created in 1994, conducted policy research covering labour market, human capital development, income security, social development, labour adjustment and workplace innovation issues and for several years was the largest social policy research capacity in Canada. The ARB built on the significant investments made by Employment and Immigration Canada in the area of surveys, social experiments and program evaluation well before the creation of HRDC. The ARB proposed a new model for managing mid-term policy research, by getting actively engaged not only in the interpretation of data, but also in the planning of surveys and other data collected though social experiments. External experts would be invited to collaborate with ARBs research staff and the organizations responsible for the data collection in developing research hypothesis, planning the survey or the experiments in accordance with these hypotheses and then harvesting the information and conducting primary research as various waves of data became available. The branch lost some momentum when HRDC got caught in a middle of highly mediatized, and quite overblown, scandal over data holdings and data linkages. As part of an internal reorganization plan, the research branch was partly dismantled in the early 2000s and the remaining research group was further split when HRDC resources were reallocated in December 2003 into two new departments, Social Development and Human Resources and Skills Development.

The Micro-Economic Policy Analysis (MEPA) branch of Industry Canada also ranks among the large research units of the federal public service. The branch emerged in the early 1990s as a central point of policy research expertise for providing policy analysis and advice on a wide range of issues related to the knowledge-based economy and the need to improve Canadas innovation performance. The forty economists or so who work in the branch divide their time between the management of research contracts, their own research work and the articulation of key messages to policy-makers. The MEPA has been particularly successful in the past ten years in attracting the contribution of top North-American scholars to their research agenda and in transferring the results of this research to policy makers, thanks to a special talent at translating research findings into decks which have become the standard way of communication with senior officials and decision-makers.

Strategic analytical efforts at Health Canada were at one time quite diffuse throughout the department. In recent years they have moved to a hybrid model with the creation of a core corporate applied research group, the Applied Research and Analysis Directorate, combined with a number of smaller units distributed through its various branches. The Branch core function is to develop and implement a strategic policy research agenda for medium and long-term issues, helping co-ordinate Health Canada’s internal and external policy research activities, and funding extramural research under the Health Policy Research Program. The Directorate, with over fifty researchers, now compares very well with the research capacity of other line departments like Industry, HRSD and SD and engages in research partnerships, modeling and data collection activities, as well as program evaluation.

Why do these high-capacity departments stand out? Often thanks to the leadership of particular senior managers who, even in a period of downsizing, insisted on the importance of investment in medium-term strategic research capacity. Even in a period of fiscal restraint and a focus on program management, these managers continued to ask questions which demanded analytical, evidence-based responses and to ensure that some resources were made available to provide those answers (Riddell 1998: 5). As well, these departments did not hesitate in regrouping their research resources to create critical masses that could be identified with a mid-term to long-term focus, and remained somewhat remote and protected from daily demands and crisis faced by most policy shops.

The B pool

Other departments have made notable attempt to build up their mid-term research capacity in response to the Felligi report. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Heritage Canada and Citizenship and Immigration fall in this category. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada established a Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate in 1993 with a mandate to support the Federal Governments policy making regarding the changing relationship between the Federal Government and First Nations, Inuit and northern peoples of Canada through a program of policy research, analysis and advice. The Directorate has a small staff that manages research from external experts and participates directly with products of their own as well. In November 2002, INAC and the University of Western Ontario organized the first Aboriginal Policy Research Conference. The nearly 700 delegates came from the federal government and academics and Aboriginal organizations to spend three days discussing research and policy.

Heritage Canada invested in building some mid-term policy research capacity in the second half of the 1990s with the creation of the Strategic Policy and Research Branch which provides a corporate research function to support the long-term strategic direction of the Department and contribute to the overall Government research agenda in areas which affect the mandate of Canadian Heritage. International Trade Canada has a small unit devoted to trade policy research and since 2001 produces on an annual basis a compendium of trade-related research work and analysis undertaken within and on behalf of the Department.

In addition to supporting the Metropolis project as one of the key funding partners, Citizenship and Immigration Canada maintains an internal research program mainly oriented towards the exploitation of the information provided by the Longitudinal Immigration Database and by surveys dealing with the labour market performance of immigrants. Agriculture Canadas Research and Analysis Directorate relies on large-scale computer models and other sectoral models to measure how changes in market conditions or policies affect the agricultural sector. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation conducts mid-term research to help address national housing issues and has a large grants and awards program to foster innovation and the development of the external housing research community. Infrastructure Canada is the new kid on the block with substantial investment in research since its creation in 2003. A small research unit, the Research and Analysis Division, manages a series of research priorities on public infrastructure issues in collaboration with other federal governments and devotes a significant amount of resources to external research contracts.

Status of Women Canada has a handful of researchers that manages since 1996 a Policy Research Fund to support independent, forward-thinking policy research on gender equality issues. Over forty projects have been funded since the first call for proposals was issued in 1997. The Law Commission of Canada is an independent federal law reform agency that advises Parliament on how to improve and modernize Canadas law. The Commission manages research projects, mostly commissioned to external experts, on various themes. The Canada Rural Partnership supports research and analysis that provides socio-economic information and analysis on rural Canada and matters of interest to rural Canada.

The Canada School of Public Service has a Vice-president heading a unit named Research and University Relations which seeks to provide relevant, accessible, and leading-edge research in governance and public management for federal public servants. The unit is relatively small, with less than a dozen staff, but draws as well on external experts and works with many Canadian universities to carry their research workplan. The RCMPs Strategic Direction sector incorporates policy development and research capacity to provide advice and support to senior management in setting the strategic direction of the organization. The sector is mainly known outside of the RCMP for his thorough environmental scan of the socio-economic, technological, legal and political environment, both at the domestic and international levels.

The above does not represent a comprehensive review of all policy research capacity across federal departments. Our brief overview nevertheless suggests that the amount of resources engaged in medium-term policy analysis and research across the federal government is not negligible. But the number of issues calling for in-depth analysis, and of particular relevance to the federal government, is far from negligible either.

Has progress been made since the Felligi report? Overall progress in some of the departments may have offset some setbacks in other departments. Also, the distribution of research capacity remains highly unequal from one department to another. What the above description does not reflect is the impact of recent budgetary measures calling for spending cuts and reallocation across all departments. For several departments, these pressures just add to previous department-specific reallocation exercises and have led to a gradual erosion of departmental research and data development budgets. While researchers jobs may have not been cut, there are clear indications that the branch budgets devoted to non-salary items, contracts, conferences, data development or other operational items, have clearly suffered.

Analytic Tools and Methods

Over the past decade, the federal government has invested in a number of new tools and methodologies to improve its medium to longer-term policy research capacity. For example, Statistics Canada in partnership with a number of departments such as HRDC and CIC, and with the guidance and support of the Policy Research Data Group, has introduced a number of important new longitudinal surveys which, while costly and time-consuming to produce, have significant advantages over cross-sectional data. Examples include the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada, the National Graduate Surveys and Follow-up Surveys, the School Leavers Surveys, the Workplace and Employees Survey). These surveys provide federal government analysts with the capacity to much better identify the key trends and challenges in several strategic policy areas including early childhood development, labour market transitions, and immigrant integration

Federal departments have also continued to invest in modeling techniques, which have improved their capacity to undertake medium and longer-term analysis. Macroeconomic models, introduced in the seventies, remain a key tool for any research or analysis involving macroeconomic forecasting or macro policy analysis. The Department of Finance and the Bank of Canada have traditionally been the most intensive users, but other departments use them as well. For instance, occupational projections introduced at Employment and Immigration in the early eighties are produced regularly with the help of such macroeconomic models and their derivatives. General equilibrium models were instrumental in assessing the merits of introducing key policy reforms, such as GST or the Free Trade Agreement. They are still used today by departments like Finance, Industry Canada, International Trade and Agriculture Canada, to assess the economic efficiency gains and potential increases in GDP per capita that could result from major policy changes.

Microsimulation models, such as Statistics Canadas Social Policy Simulation Database and Model (SPSD/M) have been handling the distributional impact of proposed policy options for the last two decades. More recently, Statistics Canada introduced a new model, the LifePaths microsimulation model of individuals and families. The model allows for a better appreciation of how various policies designed to impact decisions at different points in the lifecourse interact to affect the outcomes of individual trajectories. The LifePaths model creates data about an artificial population that mirrors the characteristics of Canadian society. As Rowe notes, this represents a radical addition to the analytic tool kit that offers the prospect for improved public policy investments to support Canadians in all the diversity of their lifecourse (Rowe 2003: 8). Health Canada also developed its own micro-simulation models. The Pharmasim model quantifies the impact of changes to provincial pharmacare programs on households and government expenditures. And the Health-Tax Microsimulation Model (HTSIM) enables analysts to quantify the impact of changes to tax measures.

Through HRDC, the federal government has also made substantial investments in social experimentation in the 1980s. A yearly budget approximating $20 million has been supporting several large field experiments and demonstration projects in various locations of Canada during most of the nineties. Projects such as the Self-sufficiency Project based in B.C. and New-Brunswick, the Community Employment Innovation Project taking place in Cape Breton, Nova-Scotia, and the Learn$ave Project implemented in 10 sites across Canada, involved thousands of participants and use rigorous quantitative analysis, in the form of random-assignment evaluation design, to test and evaluate proposals for new programs and policy initiatives. However, HRDC (and now HRSD) investments in social experimentation are unique, as other departments have not yet devoted any resources to this powerful analytical tool for better policy design. HRDC has also been innovating by making use of laboratory experiments, or experimental economics, to inform policy design. In 2002, the Canada Student Loans Program commissioned the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) to conduct an economic experiment to test the response of program recipients to the provision of various forms of short-term/part-time student financial assistance.

Environmental scanning is a technique that has gained in popularity with several federal departments. Generally a typical scan is a report capturing a view of the socio-cultural, economic, technological, environmental and even political trends and circumstances around the organization (Howe, 2004, 81). Efforts are currently being made to better integrate the various departmental scans currently underway, but for now, this activity is only carried on a small scale and remains highly decentralized.

Does all this make a difference?

One might question the need to be concerned about the federal government policy research capacity, given the assertions that such policy analysis work has little impact on either day-to-day government operations or longer term policy directions (Pal 2001: 23; Brooks 1996: 85). Yet the work of such units, with a medium- to long-term focus, can and does often make an important difference, to the development of government policy. Often this influence is only indirect, introducing concepts, insights and alternatives that may only gradually, depending upon the right circumstances, resonate with decision-makers and take hold in the policy development process. At other times, such work may have a much more direct impact. For example, in the late nineties, the Deputy Minister of Industry made ten presentations in twelve months of the work of the departments Micro-Economic Policy Branch (Riddell 1998: 7) — work that very directly informed the governments innovation agenda. Similarly, Picot offers several examples where the quantitative analysis of Statistics Canada has played a substantial role in informing many key policy areas over the past decade including the reform of Employment Insurance, child poverty efforts, promotion of research and development, immigrant integration, and issues of access to post-secondary education (Picot 2003). Similarly, the work of the Applied Research Branch of HRDC during the nineties contributed to inspire various government initiatives in the area of adult education, child development, youth employment and parental benefits. It also prevented the government from reacting to alarmist diagnosis, like the claim regarding the end of work in the mid nineties, by producing thorough analysis of labour market trends.

Conclusion: Looking ahead

Policy research capacity within the federal government is healthy and compares well with the capacity observed in other OECD governments. Recent analysis point to a problem of demand as opposed to a problem of supply (Armstrong, 2002). Decision-makers and senior government officials are overload with information and are captive of the crisis or issues of the day. They rarely find the time to give proper consideration to research findings. This demand deficiency makes the supply the more vulnerable. If policy researchers fail to create opportunities to present the results of their work, they may not survive the recurrent waves of resources reallocation, departmental reorganizations and spending cuts that have characterized the lives of all levels of governments, as well as private sector businesses, since the last recession. More emphasis has to be put on knowledge transfers and finding appropriate mechanisms to package and convey the results of the policy research to senior officials and Ministers. The role of knowledge broker is bound to increase in future years, especially in large organizations. It is therefore imperative that the federal government preserves a solid internal policy research capacity that has the ability to speak the language of policy as well as the language of research. Canada can afford more think-tanks and scholars devoted to the analysis of policy issues. In that regard we may be lagging other countries, such as the U.S. or the U.K. But without a strong internal capacity to produce, process and synthesize research information, to translate and to communicate, new investments in research capacity external to governments, may not do much to improve the quality of policy making.


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Voyer, Jean-Pierre, 2003. “Les techniques exprimentales au service de la politique sociale,” Sociologie et Socits, vol xxxv, no 1,


 I would like to thank Robert Judge, from the Policy Research Initiative, for his contribution and assistance in writing this paper.

ii As part of its commitment to improved horizontal and strategic policy development, in 1998 the UK government established the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) in the Cabinet Office, reporting directly to the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Secretary. The PIU was designed to report on select issues crossing departmental boundaries and to propose policy innovations to improve the delivery of government objectives. In 2001, a second unit, the Prime Ministers Forward Strategy Unit, was established to provide the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers with strategic, private thinking. A year later the two units were merged to form the Prime Ministers Strategy Unit. The Strategy Unit is located in the Cabinet Office and reports directly to the Prime Minister.

iii Under the Trend Project, the PRI, in cooperation with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, developed six books where team of academics examined different forces that are driving change in Canada and identified the potential implications for policy.

iv The proceedings of these conferences were published under the following titles: Transition to the Knowledge of Society: Policies and Strategies for Individual Participation and Learning. ed. Kjell Rubenson and Hans G. Schuetze. Vancouver, BC: UBC Institute for European Studies, 2000; Doing Business in the Knowledge-Based Economy: Facts and Policy Challenges. ed. Louis A. Lefebvre, Elisabeth Lefebvre, Pierre Mohnen. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001, and Citizenship and Participation in the Information Age. ed. Manjunath Pendakur and Roma Harris. Aurora, ON: Garamond Press, 2002.

2 thoughts on “History of Policy Research Initiative (PRI), Privy Council Office [reprint]

  1. On this topic, Beausejour riding is Dominic Leblanc, Liberal MP and Trudeau bestie.. their Dad’s were close buddies too… laurentian elite etc…. President of Queen’s Privy Council is a particularly key role and very well paid.. paying attention in my riding to Big Dom .. 20 plus years of ‘service’ for keeping secrets.. http://tantramarlandownersassociation.blogspot.com/2020/04/president-of-queens-privy-council-for.html

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