How do you replace social policy? With ‘decision-based evidence making’[i]

Social policy, at its simplest and most active, is the articulation of ideas to effect positive change for people based on strong principles and the best available evidence. Social policy is a good thing and is historically a strong suit of governments.

Therefore, it is extremely interesting that Canada now has a federal government that appears to wish to get out of social policy. They are achieving this end in five ways:

  • Through staff cuts and attrition in the  government departments like Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) that do social policy;
  • By declaring that large aspects of social policy like poverty reduction are  the responsibility of someone else ( i.e. provinces)
  • By making sure that charities do not conduct social policy that could be construed to have political ends
  • By cutting or eliminating the funding of public and private agencies that engage in social policy; and
  • Eliminating staff, cutting the surveys, and curtailing the census information that provide Canadians the evidence to conduct good social policy.

It is almost impossible to understand why any government would abandon social policy. Some have guessed that social policy is inconvenient to agenda-driven politics (i.e. don’t confuse me with the facts).

Others have said that progressive forces are better at social policy and that non-progressive forces will fare better if they stop social policy rather than trying to compete with rival policies and policy thinkers. Still others have suggested that social policy costs money and that in times of austerity, doing social policy is too expensive.

I doubt that the public will ever be told why social policy is being abandoned since no remotely credible reason was ever given for nuking the long form census. Even ‘dyed in the wool’ libertarians did not understand that one.

But it is important for us to understand what the federal government is using as a replacement for social policy. Some would immediately guess that it is ideology and they are right. But it is a very certain type of ideology.

Here’s an example.

Broadcaster Evan Solomon’s questioned Candice Bergen (M.P.) some time ago on why the government is building more prisons when there is good evidence that crime is going down. Bergen’s reply was to the effect:  “that’s not what Canadians think”. In other words, Bergen was presumably saying that some Canadians believe that crime is going up and that if they think that crime is going up, whether right or wrong, prisons must be built to satisfy those Canadians’ beliefs.

But Canadians think a lot of different things and that at any one point, groups of Canadians think almost anything about any one of a multitude of topics. If we follow Bergen’s logic, if some Canadians believe that aliens are about to attack Canada, we should then use government resources to buy weapons to fight them off. It simply does not matter if there are any aliens stirring for a fight with us.

But Bergen is not concerned with what Canadians believe in general. Rather it’s what her narrow constituency of Canadians believe – the less than 25% of the electorate that voted in a Conservative majority.

This is a good example of ‘decision-based evidence making’. It’s also an example of how bad evidence can get when it’s based on a decision that has already been made.

In other words, I consult myself as to what I think my kind of Canadian believes and I enlist them as my evidence for taking a particular position or charting a particular course.

Rob Ford does it. He rises out of Etobicoke and paints over bike lanes on Birchmount Road and Pharmacy Avenue in Scarborough. What’s his answer to why he did it? “The taxpayers have spoken”[ii].

Which ones? When and where? To whom did they speak? The answer is that Ford simply asserts that they spoke to him.

Principled social policy requires a framework of sound ideas, the best evidence and well-reasoned analysis articulated carefully. Why would you need any of that baggage when you’ve already decided what you want to do and your evidence to do it is the inevitable existence of the minority who agrees with you? Why not simply do what you want whenever you want?

Now that’s something that speaks to my inner toddler!


[i] Decision-based evidence making is a phrase coined by statistician Richard Shillington in 2010 aided by Armine Yalnizyan and John Stapleton