Policy Analysis in Canada: The State of the Art

CHAPTER 10 Observations on Policy-Making in Provincial Governments in Canada

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Observations on Policy-Making in Provincial Governments in Canada



There is a relative paucity of scholarly work on provincial governments and their workings with respect to policy-making. This is somewhat odd given the importance of provincial governments in Canada. The provincial government sector now provides almost two-thirds of the services of the government sector in Canada. Further, a very large part of federal activity is made up of passive transfers to individuals, requiring minimal policy and management attention, compared to the dynamic, ever shifting environment within which provincial governments work. The simple fact is that in substantive terms, the largest proportion of policy development, adaptation and change is concentrated in the provincial sector.

Part of the reason for the relative neglect of the provinces is arguably the limited amount of information available about the workings of provincial governments. It is hard to find good dependable information describing the procedures and processes of provincial governments. The internal workings of provincial governments are not widely observed, and it is difficult to systematically gather information on ten separate entities, each of which may differ in important respects. It also appears that provincial governments are not particularly introspective or self-conscious, adding to the paucity of reliable information. Provincial governments produce relatively few reports on their workings, and those that are produced are not readily accessible. In part, this seems to reflect a less reflective pre-disposition. Provincial government officials are arguably sceptical about theory and the study of how government works. They see the management of government as very practical matters. Incremental change, and change driven by experience and practice, are favoured over ‘big ideas,’ complex study, and theory driven innovation.

Two other factors appear to contribute to the lesser importance placed on the study and observation of provincial governments. The first is that a substantial amount of work on the science and practice of government is undertaken by international organizations. Government reform has been a favoured topic of organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and other respected groups. The OECD for instance has devoted a great deal of attention to government processes in member countries, including Canada. However, little of this work addresses provincial governments. Second, provincial governments are generally of less interest to the academic community. Provincial governments are most commonly seen as junior players, less important as objects of study than is the federal government.

Policy Analysis and Politics

The particular focus in this paper is the role of analysis in policy-making within provincial governments. Analysis involves techniques and procedures rooted in an objective/procedural view of the policy process. Analysis challenges politics and interest group competition for legitimacy in the policy process. Analysis is procedural different from voting, interest reconciliation, and the negotiating and bargaining that dominates elections, legislatures, party processes, lobbying, and networks of interests. The normative case for analysis is linked to rationality and an underlying belief in utilitarianism in agenda setting, policy formulation and decision-making.

No discussion of the role of analysis can proceed without acknowledging the special role of professional public servants and professional advisers. These actors occupy a privileged role in analysis. The professionalization of policy-making is necessarily linked to analysis in government processes. But this has in itself been a source of a certain amount of tension. Analysis is not always seen as fully compatible with the idea that policy is the prerogative of elected politicians.

At one level, it is hard to see how information, knowledge and analysis can be faulted. Steeped as we are in a belief in the merits of making rational choices, it is hard to understand why anyone would find fault with analysis. But it is sometimes claimed that analysis often preempts politics, and more importantly, the legitimate role of political actors. Some fear that the professionally oriented policy process is largely a system that serves the interests of public servants and professionals, rather than that of the larger society. The challenge is one of how to relate professionalism to policy, or put another way, how to relate analysis to decision-making in inherently political environments.

Policy encompasses the things governments do intentionally in order to achieve change in the larger society. Policy is purposeful and planned, setting out intended actions under given sets of conditions. Purposeful and planned action entails objectives and intended results. In an ever more complicated world, and larger and more complex government organization, more specialized skills and competencies in assembling and processing information and knowledge take on increasing value in planning and articulating government intentions. This in turn means that professional, merit based public services themselves assume greater value.

The inevitable result has been a growing importance placed on public administration based on professional qualifications and merit. The Canadian provinces were not immune to this. Saskatchewan was the first to commit to a professional public service, with legislation passed in 1945 (Stewart 2003). Most of the other provinces followed in the 1950s and 1960s, although in some cases purely operational low skill jobs remained outside the merit system until quite recently. Associated with this trend to professionalization was the development of procedures that supported or encouraged analysis as a distinct part of policy-making.

But these developments also generated the potential for a clash between the elected and the appointed officials. This clash has been most evident at the provincial level, where arguably the politicians are closer to the policy problems, and thus more likely to believe that their knowledge and understanding is as good as, or better than, professional public servants.

The clashes have not been limited to any political party or set of beliefs. Nor were they limited to the early period of professionalization. By way of example, they were most prominently held by the Devine government when elected in Saskatchewan, but also by the Rae government when elected in Ontario, and the Campbell government when elected in British Columbia (Michelmann and Steeves 1985).

The approach to the policy process in these circumstances is almost always the same. Various attempts are made to shift the focus of the policy process from the bureaucracy to the political offices of government. Professional analysis as it applies to agenda setting, articulating problems, and identifying and assessing alternatives is blamed for past policy failures or mis-directions. Senior political appointments are typically made in Ministers and Premiers offices, with the claim that in the future policy will be the responsibility of the elected members of the executive. The ‘modern’ trend toward relying heavily on professional analysis is discounted because if its bias against the direction of the newly elected government.

These kinds of claims are usually characterized by more distant observers as either being rooted in a somewhat mean spirited distrust of professional public servants, or as the inevitable result of an unfortunate politicization of the public service by the previous government.

It is common to point to the results of these efforts to ‘politicize’ policy-making as misguided, and to suggest that policy-making under such circumstances becomes error-ridden and ineffective. Politics dominate, but at the expense of the effective participation of professionals, and effective policy-making breaks down because of the absence of effective policy analysis. The underlying argument is that workable and effective policy processes require, in today’s complex world, the engagement of professionals and the results of good analysis.

Why is professional based analysis assumed to be so important to good policy? The answer is not always clear from the claims made about the dangers of politicizing policy-making.

Indeed, many close observers of government would concede that there are some difficult-to-answer questions about the relationship between the political process and a workable policy process. There are some inherent legitimate fundamental questions about the role of analysis and advice in the making of policy. The politicians suspicious of the professional policy analysts are not entirely wrong. Clear definitions about the appropriate separation of the political process from the policy process, and of the appropriate linkages between the two are not as readily available as one might think. And to some considerable degree this is because the relationship is a complex one that is not often adequately addressed by proponents of professional analysis. Indeed the struggle that has gone on in the provinces over the years over these questions is both informative and useful.

The policy process is clearly not separate from politics. Some policy scholars seem to suggest that there is a sense in which the policy process is post-politics in some sort of sequential way. But this is problematic in the way that the policy cycle in general is problematic, including but not limited to the obvious fact that there are obvious feedback loops that connect the policy process to the political process.

The fact is that in modern government the policy process connects and unites bureaucratic actors with political actors, and generally establishes procedures that create a unique and integrated relationship as a decision is made. Policy-making is almost impossible to imagine in modern government without cooperation between public servants and the political executive.

A central point is that the policy process invariably involves the engagement of bureaucratic actors, where knowledge and expertise is brought to bear in a systematic way. Cooperative problem solving with political actors is an essential element in all such engagements. Understandably, there is no clear separation from politics. Professional bureaucratic actors will generally be involved, directly or indirectly. Engagement in the policy process is one of the things they must do in their executive capacity. This is the crux of policy analysis

The real question is how the linkage is best achieved. The appropriate structural and procedural relationship between analysis and politics is an important question. So too is the appropriate relationship between those who do analysis and those who do politics. It is almost impossible to get to an answer about the appropriate relationship without conceding that both politics and analysis is infused with beliefs and ideas, and that the practitioners themselves can never entirely separate themselves from this fact. The idea that professional public servants are able to understand and advise in keeping with the political beliefs and values of any elected Cabinet and Legislature, regardless of party, is unrealistic.

Arguably, it is at the provincial level of government in Canada that the complexities and even contradictions involved are most intensively played out. The smaller size, the tendency for governments to change frequently and for the changes to involve significant ideological shifts, and the absence of a prevailing elite view about the proper place of government in society, such as has existed for so long in Ottawa, all mean that it is at the provincial level that we can observe most clearly the complexities of the relationship between analysis and politics.

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