Building a Strong Public Policy Capacity

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Notes For An Address by
Jocelyne Bourgon
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

 Policy Research: Creating Linkages Conference

Ottawa, Ontario
October 1, 1998

 Check Against Delivery


Let me begin by offering my warmest welcome to all of you and a special word of thanks to those who have come a long distance to participate in this conference.

Creating Linkages is a very appropriate theme for a policy research conference such as this because this gathering is about creating links across departments and between colleagues in governments, academia, policy research institutes, and the private and voluntary sectors. This conference is also about reaching across disciplines and creating links at all stages of the policy development process, from the work of statisticians to researchers to analysts to communicators.

This conference is a learning opportunity. It is an occasion to discuss and to reflect on the issues which may shape the public policy agenda in Canada in the years to come.

In reviewing the agenda with the conference organizers and discussing the nature of the contribution that I might make, I was left with three questions:

I. Does sound public policy research matter in government anymore?

II. What are the challenges facing the public service policy research community?

III. What progress is being made by the Public Service of Canada to build a strong policy research community?

I will use these questions as the basis for my remarks today.


Let me begin with the first question: Does sound public policy research matter in government anymore?

Policy formulation is about transforming what is desirable into concrete results. It is about changing the current reality. It is about shaping the future. In a democracy, policy making is central to the political process. It is therefore central to the role of government.

Sound public policies require the coming together of two complex sets of assessments — political judgment about the capacity to marshal the necessary public support, and professional judgment as to the best way of achieving success.

Elected and appointed officials may contribute in different ways to the policy formulation process, but ultimately they share the responsibility for the successful implementation of the government’s public policy agenda.

Elected officeholders bring to the process the legitimacy of popular support essential to making choices and setting priorities. The professional public service brings the knowledge of government programs and of policy instruments essential to efficient policy making. Neither role is easy; indeed, both are becoming increasingly complex.

A lot has happened over the past 10 years. Those who were predicting the end of the nation state in a global environment have been proven wrong. Those who, not long ago, were dismissing the role of government in a modern society urgently need a new theory.

The experience of the last 10 years has taught us the importance of the role of government to a well-performing society and a well-performing economy. It has reminded us of the importance of sound public policies.

In fact, if we have learned anything during this period it should be that whatever the next century may hold for us, we can be sure that government and public sector institutions will be called upon to play a key strategic role. In a global environment, the comparative advantages of countries are not inherited but created. Sound public policies help provide Canada and Canadians with significant comparative advantages in the competition for talent and investment, and they help ensure a high quality of life and standard of living for all Canadians.

Public policy research is about the power of ideas — finding them, testing them, forging them into sound policy options that can be implemented successfully and can achieve the policy outcomes intended. Reality is the ultimate test of a policy proposal. Solid policy research and a strong and interactive policy research community, inside and outside government, give us the chance to position Canadian society for what lies ahead. It gives elected decision makers essential guideposts against which to make sound decisions.

So to the first question my answer is a resounding "yes." Sound public policy research matters. It is central to the democratic process. It is central to the role of government. While no one can predict future events, the application of knowledge to the understanding of societal trends and developments is a critical contribution that will have important consequences for our continued success as a nation. It is, however, a very difficult and demanding task.


Let me turn to the second question: What are the challenges facing the Public Service policy research community?

Public policy issues are becoming more complex and policy formulation more complicated. While my purpose is not to be exhaustive, let me briefly give you some examples:

Public policy issues are increasingly global in nature. To achieve the desired results requires simultaneous and co-ordinated actions at the international, national and local levels. It is the case for issues such as trade, environment, human rights and many others.

Increasingly, public policy issues are horizontal in nature. They require a "whole of government approach." There are no distinctions anymore between economic and social policies. Both are essential to a well-performing society, and both contribute to wealth creation as well as to wealth redistribution. Issues such as poverty, health and literacy encompass all of the economic, social and fiscal roles of government.

Many public policy issues require an integrated approach among governments at all levels. For instance, preparing citizens for a knowledge-based economy implies looking at education, life-long learning, research and development, technology transfer, and so on.

No one has all the knowledge or controls all the levers to give effect to complex policy outcomes. To achieve national policy goals requires a longer lead time, a multidisciplinary approach, teamwork among departments and among governments, and strong alliances with other partners in society — the broader policy community and a complex network of international forums.

Finally, citizens want to relate to their democratic and public sector institutions in new and different ways. They want to be partners in shaping the future. The involvement of citizens in shaping the policies that will affect them most contributes to enriching the policy formulation process and increasing the legitimacy of major policy decisions.

So there are many challenges but also great opportunities. Let’s look at the progress made in the Public Service of Canada to build a strong policy research community.


The policy research community in the Public Service of Canada does not operate in a vacuum. It exists to serve the needs of elected officeholders; it exists to respond to the demands of ministers and senior officials. A strong policy capacity requires a strong and sustained demand for policy advice and policy proposals.

To review progress over the last five years one must start at the top, and see how ministers are responding to the challenges I have just outlined.

In 1994 the Government of Canada innovated by creating an annual cycle of strategic planning sessions for ministers. The purpose was to get away from the crisis of the day; to look ahead and try to identify the issues that will matter the most in the future; to distinguish between the urgent and the important; to bring all perspectives to bear on policy discussions; and to take a collective approach on major policy initiatives.

The experience proved useful and, today, ministers continue to meet as a team for a day and a half every four months. This approach has since been borrowed by other countries. This initiative was a powerful signal to the whole Public Service of the importance of policy work and of the need for an integrated approach to policy research.

The second initiative came about in 1996. In recognition of the increasing complexity and inter-relatedness of policy issues, Cabinet’s number of policy committees was reduced from the nine that existed in 1993 to two: one on the economic union and one on the social union. Furthermore, the two committees often come together as one, since a "whole of government approach" is increasingly needed.

So, ministers are indeed taking action to adapt to the growing complexity of policy issues, but so too is the Public Service. Our efforts began in 1995 with the work of Ivan Fellegi, chair of the Task Force on Strengthening Our Policy Capacity, and continued in 1996 with Mel Cappe, chair of the Task Force on Managing Horizontal Policy Issues. It was also in 1996 that I asked Jim Lahey and Alan Nymark to become the first co-chairs of the Policy Research Committee, an effort to create a strong policy research network across 30 departments and agencies.

I knew from experience that there was no shortage of talent in the Public Service of Canada. I knew that in every department, policy researchers and analysts were eager to knock down the walls and to work together on the most difficult policy issues of their time. That, after all, is one of the most significant rewards of a career in public service. All that was needed, for my part, was the idea, the first spark and the trust that the talent of our people would do the rest. And indeed it did.

Today, the Policy Research Committee has emerged as an essential part of public sector reform in Canada. Its findings are enriching policy advice in every department and contributing to refining the policy agenda of the government. This network includes hundreds of dedicated people at all levels within the Public Service. And it is now reaching out to other levels of government and to the broader policy research community — academics, research institutes, and the private and voluntary sectors. This conference is a vibrant example of this effort.

This is progress for which we must acknowledge the exceptional leadership of the co-chairs of the Policy Research Committee, Alan Nymark and Jim Lahey (who helped breath life into the initiative). Recognition must also go to Laura Chapman and her team at the Policy Research Secretariat (who were pillars of strength) and to hundreds of people within government departments and policy teams (whose commitment made this initiative a success). But I also want to acknowledge and thank members of the broad policy research community outside of government for lending their strength, contributing their ideas and bringing their enthusiasm to the table.

While my purpose today has been to give an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing the Public Service in building a strong policy capacity, there are stories of other struggles in other organizations to strengthen their policy capacity and to deal with the challenges of adapting to a modern society. For instance, there’s the Trends project, a joint initiative of the Policy Research Committee and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, in which some of Canada’s leading academics are coming together in interdisciplinary teams to look at emerging horizontal policy issues. And there are leaders in the academic community who are exploring different ways to shape the research agenda to reflect the growing interdisciplinary nature of issues. I am talking about leaders like Norman Riddell of the University of Alberta, Rick Van Loon of Carleton University, Bill Leggett of Queen’s University, and Marc Renaud of the SSHRC. I want to applaud their leadership.

This conference provides all of us with an excellent opportunity to celebrate our efforts and explore ways to move forward and work together as partners.


The policy research community that we can build together for the future could be a complex ecosystem comprising a wide variety of interconnected organizations — governments, academia, policy research institutes, the private and voluntary sectors — each one making a valuable contribution and enriched by the contributions of the others. It could be a system addressing issues from a diversity of perspectives: regional, Aboriginal, and gender perspectives integrated into the mainstream of policy development. It could be a co-operative system of large organizations co-existing with small ones; information technologies used to bridge distances; different organizations working as one to address a common research challenge.

It could be a responsive system. Different configurations emerging and disappearing with the constant churning of issues. It could be an outward- looking community taking the best ideas from around the world, a transparent and open system that understands the need to engage citizens on key policy developments affecting them.

And it is already starting to take shape. Look around you. You will see it in the diversity of the community that has been brought together at this event. You will hear it in the innovative research findings that will be discussed at the sessions.

I hope that you will enjoy the next two days and use them to the fullest to share your ideas about the future and to "create linkages."