Monday, March 30, 2009

Dispatch from McGill's Public Policy in Crisis: Where are the bridges?

On Friday I attended the Public Policy in Crisis conference at McGill, hosted by the always inspiring Antonia Maioni.  It asked two things: a) is public policy in crisis? and b) how is public policy affected by crisis (and more specifically, the GEC*)?

Lots of smart people there had lots of different opinions, but here's my take on the answers.  For (a), the collective wisdom generally thought yes, but probably not as much as the institutions that surround it, specifically Parliament and the media.  For (b), like most people opining on the GEC, no one really knows what's going to happen, but there was general agreement that policy sure is going to matter more than it has in recent years.  

My favourite panel was Friday morning's on the use of evidence in public policy. Ian Brodie splashed the cold water of political realities onto the audience's faces and described why the Conservative Party cut GST, despite the protestations of "economists and people who claim to know economists."  Wendy Thomson gave an excellent analysis of how "science let us down" in the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK.  Matthew Mendelsohn, my colleague at the Public Policy School at U of T, discussed the challenges using evidence on high profile, regionally divisive issues.  Case in point is equalization, where Matthew pointed out that, even when we could, we fail to gather evidence on the effectiveness of Canada's equalization program (its $267 billion price tag be damned).  "All politics are local?" anyone?

Joe Clark wrapped up with a reminder of the importance of getting back to basics, reminding us that "evidence" not only includes research but also must include "instinct" - by which he meant an ability to triangulate hard evidence with the experiences and aspirations of people.  "Social knowledge" or "experience" are other words that capture this sentiment.  In Clark's view, this should be done through Parliament, which is ultimately where people connect to the government. He feared that the overload of work and travel, coupled with the dominance of experts makes it increasingly difficult for our MPs to maintain a connection with the people who helped one get elected, squeezing out "instinct" and making Parliament and by extension our government less legitimate.  This reminded me of why Obama fought so hard to keep his Blackberry and see his Chicago friends.

Obviously this provided lots of food for thought for us at Samara.  While Samara isn't focused on public policy directly, our interest is in the culture that surrounds its development.  Culture is a slippery word, and while admittedly we here at Samara need to be a bit more precise about what we mean when we say such sweeping things (!), in this world, it is a mix of our individual actions and beliefs as well as the direction of our institutions, including Parliament.  It's not enough to focus on institutional reform, nor is it enough to act without an eye to our institutions (of which Parliament is just one; media are another, as are universities and libraries, to name a few).  Where are the bridges?

*Global economic crisis.  I feel we're overdue for an acronym here.
P.S. I have notes on the sessions.  If anyone's interested, let me know.  Happy to share.

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