There have been many conversations within the policy community about the decline in the policy capacity of the federal government. In part this has been driven by the current government’s preference for implementing its own policy agenda without relying on the policy branches within their own departments. As important a factor in the demise of government-driven policy work has been the increase in the number of think tanks and industry or not-for-profit expert groups that have analytical skills and effective ways of making their position known.
While this leaves the federal public service in a quandary about its future role as policy leaders, the new environment has opened up the opportunity for many players to participate in policy development even when they are not “inside the tent.”
Within this evolving landscape of policy players stands one relatively new organization that has been providing timely policy advice to the federal government in a novel and effective way.
The Council for Canadian Academies (CCA) was formally launched in 2006 with little fanfare but with a well-crafted strategic plan. It was modelled, in a scaled-down version, on the United States-based National Academies of Science (NAS) that has a distinguished track record of providing policy advice to U.S. governments on a wide range of science-related issues. Under the leadership of Peter Nicholson who, at the time, was one of Ottawa’s most engaging and innovative policy advisors, the CCA slowly established itself as the go to place for evidence-based policy analysis, especially in the areas of innovation, science and the environment.
Borrowing from the NAS, the CCA introduced important management and governance practices that legitimized its work and established its independence from the federal government that was the sole funder of the organization. In short, the CCA is a not-for-profit organization that undertakes evidence-based assessments of policy issues that are conducted by multi-disciplinary expert panels. The expert panels are drawn from Canada and abroad and each panel member serves in a volunteer capacity.
Its financial support comes from a one-time grant of $30 million in the 2005 federal budget to cover a 10-year period of operations. In return for this cash infusion, the CCA was mandated to respond each year to five policy-related requests from the federal government for assessment. To broaden its policy horizons the CCA has been encouraged to conduct other assessments on a cost recovery basis from any interested party in Canada.
The CCA has a number of interesting features that make it unique in the Canadian policy world. First, all assessments are conducted by panels comprised of international and Canadian experts who provide their expertise and time free of charge to the organization. Moreover, all of the assessments provided to government and sponsors are made public, in both official languages, so that all interested stakeholders can benefit from their analysis.
Second, as an operating principle, the CCA reports are not prescriptive and contain no policy recommendations. Instead, they prefer a “presentation of the evidence of what is known and what is not known on a given subject.” Sponsors have no role other than helping to frame the evaluation questions and the peer review process is described in advance for every assessment to ensure independence and objectivity.
To date, the CCA has completed more than 20 assessments for the federal government and has an additional 15 more underway. Examples of its work include The State of Industrial Research and Development in Canada, Better Research for Better Business, Canadian Ocean Science, and The Future of Canadian Policing Models.
Last September an external evaluation panel, led by the recently retired Industry Canada Deputy Minister Richard Dicerni, completed an exhaustive review of the CCA’s mandate and assessed whether there is a continued need for the organization. The evaluation team concluded, after canvassing the views of sponsors and interested parties, that there is growing demand for the CCA’s work from a more diverse set of sponsors and that the CCA offers “policymakers and the public an essential perspective through its deliberate and rigorous methodology.”
Flying under the policy radar, the CCA has occupied an innovative space; it’s funded by the federal government but offers independent and rigorous assessment of policy issues. It is a fascinating model for assessing public policy (i.e., no recommendations, evidence-based, and expert panels) that might have wider appeal among provincial governments and more federal departments other than science based ones.
The CCA’s work also reinforces the legitimacy of “substance” experts in looking at policy options, the value of multidisciplinary teams in examining “wicked problems” and the growing importance of outside government policy experts who can play a useful role in framing and assessing public policies when they are properly joined with policy analysts in government.