New Horizons on Policy Research: An Interview with Jean-Pierre Voyer - Canadian Government Executive
DevelopmentGovernmentThe Interview
March 23, 2017

New Horizons on Policy Research: An Interview with Jean-Pierre Voyer

There is a new buzz in policy circles. Advances in data analysis, the rising levels of computer literacy, and the new awareness of behavioural factors are combining with a stronger demand coming out of governments who must reconcile a scarcity of dollars with a demand for performance. CGE Editor Patrice Dutil discussed the new horizon with Jean-Pierre Voyer, the CEO of the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC), a non-profit research organization that has just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Voyer assumed the position in 2006 after many years in the federal bureaucracy.

A native of Montreal, Voyer has a BA in Economics at the Université de Montréal as well as an MA in Economics from Queen’s University.

Q: You’ve been in this game for a long time long. What’s your “favourite” policy dilemma these days?

I have taken a particular interest in conversations around social innovation and the role of government. Many argue that social innovation is a bottom-up process which consists mainly in harnessing the energy and creativity of individuals and groups who work closely with program recipients. Under this view, the role of government would be simply to provide an enabling regulatory environment, with perhaps the addition of some financial incentives, for this grassroots social innovation to emerge. I like to think that governments can also be social innovators, by designing creative solutions to social problems and testing them out. The notion that governments are too bureaucratic or have too rigid structures to innovate is a fallacy.

One interesting dilemma is the area of social innovation relates to the future of social impact bonds (SIBs). At SRDC, we have been exploring the viability of SIBs as a means to engage the private sector in the funding of social programs. In many ways, the concept of SIBs is appealing: the private sector invests in a social intervention and if pre-set outcomes are achieved or surpassed, the government pays back the private investor with a return on its investment. These pay-for-success schemes could be the source of new investments that look too risky at the outset for governments to make. Drawing more funds from the private sector, whether these funds come from banks or private foundations, would seem like an interesting idea at times when fiscal pressures make it particularly hard to propose further developments of the Welfare State. While the concept has some appeal, our early observations are that conditions for success are rather daunting.  I reserve judgement at this time, as the SIBs scheme needs to receive a few fair tests before one can assess the viability of the tool. This may take while as we have very few SIBS being implemented in Canada and international experiences are just starting to deliver the evidence we all need.

Q: What is your feeling about the policy environment in government generally?

I think we are some type of turning point. We have lived through a difficult environment over the past ten years or so. In the social policy domain, there seemed to be less resources available to do the job right. We have seen a loss of momentum on the data development fronts, reduced policy research capacity and a lack of investment by governments in testing new program ideas. As well, limited exchanges have taken place between federal and provincial governments over new program ideas, the results of pilot projects or best practices.  Lately however, we are saying exciting developments. With more discussion around social innovation, provincial governments have been investing in research and innovation and are looking at ways to improve the impact of their labour market programs.  New behavioral insights units have been created in several federal governments and in Ontario, adding to the analytical capacity. The federal government has also committed to conduct more experimentation and to strengthen the culture of measurement and evaluation.  These developments should all contribute to improve the quality of policy advice in coming years.

Q:  Recent surveys show that public sector leaders feel pretty confident about the policy analysis capacities of their departments. Are you surprised?

I have not seen these surveys, but I suspect that the questionnaire did not probe that deep. My own assessment is that capacities vary a lot from one department to another, and from one government to another. For one thing, I would make the distinction between having access to smart people for advice and having the right infrastructure in place to ensure these same smart policy advisers can get to the information they need to provide good advice.  I go back to my earlier comment about the lack of momentum over the last decade in improving the policy analyst toolkit, and would mention that lack of new data development initiatives and the paucity of information available on what works. These two dimensions alone point to a weakened policy analysis function.  I just hope that the positive developments that I noted earlier will contribute to reverse that trend.

Q: If you were King, where would you invest most of your policy and program research dollars?

I would do what’s needed to make evidence-based policy a serious commitment. To achieve this, I would promote experimentation, evaluation and data development. On experimentation and evaluation, I would simply make sure the federal government honors its commitment to “ensure that departments are devoting a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems and measuring the impact of their programs.” This two-pronged commitment is spelled out in the President of the Treasury Board mandate letter and I hope that TB will find ways to reward departments that are leading the way.

My second edict, as a King, would be to consider a serious expansion of our data system by investing resources in promoting and performing data linkages between provincial and federal administrative data and between national surveys and program administrative data. While some of this work is proceeding, more can be done to tap the potential of these existing data in informing policy and program decisions.

Q: How has SRDC evolved in its 15 years?

SRDC was created by Employment and Immigration in 2001 to implement and field test new program ideas before they become policy and be implemented at scale. No such capacity existed in Canada at the time, and SRDC spent several years conducting social experiments in real-life contexts on behalf of what then became HRDC, and then ESDC.  In the last ten years or so, we have extended our clientele to most provinces and many non-profit organizations and philanthropic foundations. Overall, we have completed in excess of 300 projects, from literature review on best practices, to feasibility studies, program evaluations and demonstration projects, all with a focus on learning what works.  We have been involved in about 20 large scale demonstration projects using experimental designs, known as randomized control trials, covering social, labour market, education and learning, and health programs.

Four years ago, with financial support from the BC government, we have set up the BC Centre for Employment Excellence to meet the knowledge and development needs of the employment services sector and the employer community in British Columbia on issues related to employment programs and practices. The Centre is now used as a model by several other provincial governments.  Our current priority is to take our accumulated knowledge in the area of employment and training programs and share our knowledge on best practices with provincial governments across the country. But we are also very active in addressing problems relating to mental health in the workplace, improving access to PSE, social assistance reform, and many other policy challenges.

Q: What do you think are the essential features of successful policy entrepreneurs?

It is important to distinguish between policy entrepreneurs and policy advocates. To me, a policy entrepreneur is someone who is primary concerned about developing a policy that will work to achieve the objectives set by the intended client, be it a Minister, a department or the government as a whole. The policy entrepreneur has to be well-read in its field of expertise, knowledgeable about how government make decisions, fully cognizant of the realities imposed by the environmental and political context, and ready to cater to the value set of the client. Pragmatism is also a condition for success.

 Q: A lot of hope is being invested in the idea that new insights in behaviourism can solve many policy and program dilemmas. What do you think?

Behavioral economics has brought about a new perspective on how best to design programs and policy to maximize their impacts.  We are reminded that individuals are not always acting rationally and may respond to other things that financial incentives.  The advent of behavioral insights offices across several federal government departments and some provincial government is a very positive development. That said, behavioral economics is not a panacea, just a new tool in the policy toolkit.

Q: You’ve been in this game for a long time now. What’s your “favourite” policy dilemma these days?

I have taken a particular interest in conversations around social innovation and the role of government. Many argue that social innovation is a bottom-up process which consists mainly in harnessing the energy and creativity of individuals and groups who work closely with program recipients. Under this view, the role of government would be simply to provide an enabling regulatory environment, with perhaps the addition of some financial incentives, for this grassroots social innovation to emerge. I like to think that governments can also be social innovators, by designing creative solutions to social problems and testing them out. The notion that governments are too bureaucratic or have too rigid structures to innovate is a fallacy.

One interesting dilemma is the area of social innovation relates to the future of social impact bonds (SIBs). At SRDC, we have been exploring the viability of SIBs as a means to engage the private sector in the funding of social programs. In many ways, the concept of SIBs is appealing: the private sector invests in a social intervention and if pre-set outcomes are achieved or surpassed, the government pays back the private investor with a return on its investment. These pay-for-success schemes could be the source of new investments that look too risky at the outset for governments to make. Drawing more funds from the private sector, whether these funds come from banks or private foundations, would seem like an interesting idea at times when fiscal pressures make it particularly hard to propose further developments of the Welfare State. While the concept has some appeal, our early observations are that conditions for success are rather daunting. I reserve judgement at this time, as the SIBs scheme needs to receive a few fair tests before one can assess the viability of the tool. This may take while as we have very few SIBS being implemented in Canada and international experiences are just starting to deliver the evidence we all need.

 

Q: What is your feeling about the policy environment in government generally?

I think we are at some type of turning point. We have lived through a difficult environment over the past ten years or so. In the social policy domain, there seemed to be less resources available to do the job right. We have seen a loss of momentum on the data development fronts, reduced policy research capacity and a lack of investment by governments in testing new program ideas. As well, limited exchanges have taken place between federal and provincial governments over new program ideas, the results of pilot projects or best practices. Lately however, we are saying exciting developments. With more discussion around social innovation, provincial governments have been investing in research and innovation and are looking at ways to improve the impact of their labour market programs. New behavioral insights units have been created in several federal governments and in Ontario, adding to the analytical capacity. The federal government has also committed to conduct more experimentation and to strengthen the culture of measurement and evaluation. These developments should all contribute to improve the quality of policy advice in coming years.

 

Q: Recent surveys show that public sector leaders feel pretty confident about the policy analysis capacities of their departments. Are you surprised?

I have not seen these surveys, but I suspect that the questionnaire did not probe deeply. My own assessment is that capacities vary a lot from one department to another, and from one government to another. For one thing, I would make the distinction between having access to smart people for advice and having the right infrastructure in place to ensure these same smart policy advisers can get to the information they need to provide good advice. I go back to my earlier comment about the lack of momentum over the last decade in improving the policy analyst toolkit, and would mention that lack of new data development initiatives and the paucity of information available on what works. These two dimensions alone point to a weakened policy analysis function. I just hope that the positive developments that I noted earlier will contribute to reverse that trend.

 

Q: If you were King, where would you invest most of your policy and program research dollars?

I would do what’s needed to make evidence-based policy a serious commitment. To achieve this, I would promote experimentation, evaluation and data development. On experimentation and evaluation, I would simply make sure the federal government honours its commitment to “ensure that departments are devoting a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems and measuring the impact of their programs.” This two-pronged commitment is spelled out in the President of the Treasury Board mandate letter and I hope that TB will find ways to reward departments that are leading the way.

My second edict, as King, would be to consider a serious expansion of our data system by investing resources in promoting and performing data linkages between provincial and federal administrative data and between national surveys and program administrative data. While some of this work is proceeding, more can be done to tap the potential of these existing data in informing policy and program decisions.

 

Q: How has SRDC evolved in its 15 years?

SRDC was created by Employment and Immigration in 2001 to implement and field test new program ideas before they become policy and be implemented at scale. No such capacity existed in Canada at the time, and SRDC spent several years conducting social experiments in real-life contexts on behalf of what then became HRDC, and then ESDC. In the last ten years or so, we have extended our clientele to most provinces and many non-profit organizations and philanthropic foundations. Overall, we have completed in excess of 300 projects, from literature review on best practices, to feasibility studies, program evaluations and demonstration projects, all with a focus on learning what works. We have been involved in about 20 large-scale demonstration projects using experimental designs, known as randomized control trials, covering social, labour market, education and learning, and health programs.

Four years ago, with financial support from the BC government, we have set up the BC Centre for Employment Excellence to meet the knowledge and development needs of the employment services sector and the employer community in British Columbia on issues related to employment programs and practices. The Centre is now used as a model by several other provincial governments. Our current priority is to take our accumulated knowledge in the area of employment and training programs and share our knowledge on best practices with provincial governments across the country. But we are also very active in addressing problems relating to mental health in the workplace, improving access to PSE, social assistance reform, and many other policy challenges.

 

Q: What do you think are the essential features of successful policy entrepreneurs?

It is important to distinguish between policy entrepreneurs and policy advocates. To me, a policy entrepreneur is someone who is primarily concerned about developing a policy that will work to achieve the objectives set by the intended client, be it a minister, a department or the government as a whole. The policy entrepreneur has to be well-read in its field of expertise, knowledgeable about how government make decisions, fully cognizant of the realities imposed by the environmental and political context, and ready to cater to the value set of the client. Pragmatism is also a condition for success.

 

 Q: A lot of hope is being invested in the idea that new insights in behaviourism can solve many policy and program dilemmas. What do you think?

Behavioral economics has brought about a new perspective on how best to design programs and policy to maximize their impacts. We are reminded that individuals are not always acting rationally and may respond to other things that financial incentives. The advent of behavioral insights offices across several federal government departments and some provincial government is a very positive development. That said, behavioral economics is not a panacea, just a new tool in the policy toolkit.

About this author

Patrice Dutil

Patrice Dutil is the Editor of Canadian Government Executive. He is a Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has worked as a government policy advisor, a non-profit organization executive, a television producer and was the founder, and editor for five years, of The Literary Review of Canada. His upcoming publications include a book on the administrative practices of Canadian prime ministers Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, and a study of the 1917 election in Canada.

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