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July 7, 2017

The Endless Pursuits of Results in the Age of Program Evaluation

One of the writers in this month’s issue started a note by saying “Did you know that some of the world’s most interesting analysis of employment programs is being conducted in Canada?” It struck me as a strange line. It had a familiar, if odd, lacquer; a mix of pride and frustration.  I call it the colour of engaged public service. The reality is that we are living a new dawn of serious thinking in program evaluation, and results-driven policy and program design. The frustration is that the thinking is not always being heard.

Money is short, frustration is high and ambitions are tall when it comes to government policy. I’m with those who think that the public service as a whole aims to do good, to provide the best service possible and even to go the extra mile when called upon. But I’m also with those who believe that government operations must be continually assessed in light of public needs, public finance, and democratic choice. The changing technological environment, as my friend Jeffrey Roy reminds us, compels such a stance.

This issue is focused on one of my favourite topics: breakthroughs in program evaluation. It brings together compelling new approaches to evaluating programs and offers reflections on where things are going.

Jamie Gamble makes the argument that evaluation should not be seen as an impediment to innovation—quite the contrary. For him, constant evaluation is the sine qua non of innovation, the very mother of new approaches in (re)designing programs. Yves Gingras holds that the Government of Canada’s Local Market Development Agreements are making a measurable impact in helping people find work. Markus Sharaput, focusing his research on FedNor’s experience over the past decade, comes to a similar conclusion: public servants are adapting their approaches based on new demands.

We’ve talked a lot about the ‘nudge’ approach to helping people help themselves in making better use of government programs. Mathieu Audet, Stéphane Gascon, Hasti Rahbar, and Monica Soliman showcase an instance where behavioural insights gathered from research have markedly improved the Job Match program.

Nabil Harfoush wants us to go further. He argues that program evaluation needs to get out of its rear-view mirror and focus on how changes in the near and more distant future are going to challenge government approaches to managing problems. I think his case for exploring new methods in strategic foresight is convincing. The era of big data, the sophistication of our understanding of social trends and the creativity of

Canadians generally should drive us towards better policy and program design.

Over the past few years, new approaches to innovation such as the various “labs” and “deliverology” have encouraged optimism. I see them as efforts to capitalize on the insights and the technologies at hand. They are tangible expressions of a will to improve, evidence that government is responsive, at least in some places. I have no doubt that government will continue foolish policies driven by political pet-ideas, but democracy must be served and we never lose by experimenting with new ideas and approaches.

This is my last issue as editor of Canadian Government Executive. I asked not to renew my mandate so that I can focus more of my efforts on other projects that have languished of late. The experience of working with the Promotive Communications team was delightful from beginning to end, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with all its members. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the regular columnists — Jeff Roy, Harvey Schachter, Peter Stoyko, John Wilkins, David Zussman — and was inspired by their determination and inventiveness. My work was sustained by the members of the editorial board, and I am very grateful to them. I wish CGE continued good health and endless creativity as former Deputy Minister George Ross, a deeply experienced former civil servant, succeeds me. See you soon!

About this author

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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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