Don Cayo: Policy decisions made without facts can only fall back on whim, bias and ideology

More on anecdotes vs. evidence, this time in the context of Vancouver house prices but a broader message by Cayo:

But populism, political pandering, intuition or ideology — call it what you will, the made-up facts that are spewed in so many debates — are always a poor basis for decision-making. Yet we see a heavy reliance on this at every level of government, not to mention with voters every time we go to the polls. And, sadly, we seem doomed to see a lot more.

Every government is prone to ignore relevant data, even when it’s available, or to spin it to favour their ideological or political priorities. And there are lots of gaps in the data they can draw on — like the gaping hole in the Vancouver housing picture that invites us to jump to any conclusion that suits our mood.

Worse, the federal government has been refining this shortcoming. It has launched what looks like a focused assault on the sources of information that could inform debate on myriad issues.

The worst step in this direction was the 2010 decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census. Despite continuing outcries of not just political opponents but also of apolitical researchers and analysts in many important fields, the government won’t budge.

This move didn’t have many immediate consequences, but its effect will multiply over time. Because the response rate to the voluntary replacement for the mandatory long form plummeted from well over 90 per cent in 2006 to less than 70 per cent in 2011, and because most non-responders are from smaller places and poorer segments of society, the resulting data is skewed. It’s no longer reliable enough to do the job it once did: informing intelligent planning and the like.

The result will be more policy debates and decisions driven by ideology, bias or whim, just like Robertson’s and Clark’s conflicting views on housing policy. And no side will be unable to authoritatively back its case or counter the other side’s without trustworthy data.

The list of growing impediments to intelligent debate goes on: Cutbacks to research budgets; the muzzling of federal scientists and other experts with information to contribute; the chill on non-profits, some with considerable expertise, because they fear loss of funding and/or being singled out for audits that seem to be targeting perceived advocates of positions not favoured by the federal government.

Don Cayo: Policy decisions made without facts can only fall back on whim, bias and ideology.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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