Liberals will find key to undoing Harper’s agenda in his infamous ‘firewall’ letter | Ottawa Citizen

A good in-depth and must read piece by Andrew Potter on how the ‘firewall’ letter was implemented from Ottawa, and the tactics behind implementation of the ideology:

Data: It wasn’t privacy, as Tony Clement said, or freedom, as Max Bernier argued, that was the real rationale for killing the mandatory long-form census. It was to throw a whole lot of noise into the demographic signal that the census had been giving for decades. That is also why Statistics Canada as a whole was gutted over the course of the Harper years. Without accurate data, social planners are flying blind.

Expertise: No government in living memory has been as hostile to experts and to evidence as the Harper government. But as Laval economist Stephen Gordon recently argued, it wasn’t all forms of expertise and evidence that gave the Tories hives – plenty of their economic initiatives were rooted in the best available evidence. What the Tories were allergic to was expertise that steered the evidence in directions they didn’t want to go – “committing sociology,” in Harper’s wonderful turn of phrase. That is why scientists were muzzled, policy shops were shuttered and bureaucrats were ignored.

Money: Here is the meat in the sandwich. When it comes to social planning, the ultimate source of Ottawa’s power is the spending power. And this is where Harper had his greatest success. By the end of his tenure as prime minister, Ottawa’s spending, as a share of GDP, had fallen to levels not seen since the middle of the 20th century. And the spending that does remain is overwhelmingly devoted to either just keeping the lights on or takes the form of transfers to the provinces and individuals.

Harper’s policy genius here was the two-point cut in the GST, which currently costs the federal treasury about $12 billion a year. Harper’s political genius was the creation of an all-party and pan-Canadian consensus around the virtues of a balanced budget at that historically low-level of federal spending.

No data, no experts and no money. Starve the beast, but make it blind and deaf at the same time. This is Harper’s “Ottawa Firewall” in a nutshell.

‘Flat-tire federalism’

As long as Harper was in power, this firewall against centralized social planning was bound to be highly effective. The question is, what remains of this agenda with a Liberal majority in power in Ottawa?

The long-form mandatory census is back, just under the wire. Another missed census in 2016 would have gummed up the data for generations, but as it stands, it looks like the 2011 asterisk will remain just that.

The scientists have already been unmuzzled. The public servants have been asked for their advice. The policy shops are staffing up and stocking the shelves and will be open for business soon.

But what about the money? This is where things get tricky for the Liberals. Their commitment to running three relatively small deficits to build infrastructure and kick-start growth caught everyone in the chattering classes off guard, and turned out to be a political winner.

But the promise was to return to balance by the last year of their mandate. That is, they accepted the basic premise of balanced budgets at more or less current levels of federal revenues (their tax plan calls for additional revenues of just $3 billion). This isn’t nearly enough, and there is not enough economic good weather in the offing for Ottawa to grow its way to good times.

An Ottawa with lots of data and lots of policy ambitions but no money is going to be pretty ineffectual.  At some point, the Liberals are going to have to tackle the revenue problem. Without money, without the fiscal capacity to get things done, all the data and expertise and policy advice is just squiggles on a page and vibrations of air molecules.

A federal government that is nicer, less controlling, more transparent but still broke is not one that has much capacity to bother the provinces with socialist schemes. And if that’s where things remain, then Harper’s long-term victory will be cemented, regardless of who is in power.

Source: Liberals will find key to undoing Harper’s agenda in his infamous ‘firewall’ letter | Ottawa Citizen

“Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”

An interesting column from Errol Morris on evidence, using the logic of Martin Rees with respect to the existence or not of extraterrestrial life (“absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”) to the question during the Bush Administration on whether or not weapons of mass destruction existed or not.

Part of the evidence vs anecdote challenge. Public service evidence on macro-trends can conflict with anecdotes from the political level, but the political level could also argue that the absence of evidence in our studies and research did not mean it did not exist. But still, better to operate with as sound evidence as possible:

What do I take from this? To me, progress hinges on our ability to discriminate knowledge from belief, fact from fantasy, on the basis of evidence. It’s not the known unknown from the known known, or the unknown unknown from the known unknown, that is crucial to progress. It’s what evidence do you have for X, Y or Z? What is the justification for your beliefs? When confronted with such a question, Rumsfeld was never, ever able to come up with an answer.

The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld (Part 4) –

Veiled voting furor’s unlikely ending: Delacourt | Toronto Star

Good piece on evidence vs anecdote with respect to Elections Canada and the veiled voting controversy. Also nice mention of my book:

It should remind us of the push and pull that former bureaucrat Andrew Griffith has described in his book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, about his experiences at Citizenship and Immigration when Jason Kenney became the minister.

Griffith writes of how the public servants came to the table with reports and research, only to be met with anecdotes from the minister’s many, many meetings with cultural communities.

“While anecdotal in nature, the scale of ministerial outreach meant that public servants could not ignore what he was hearing from his ‘practicum,’ as he called it,” Griffith wrote.

Veiled voting furor’s unlikely ending: Delacourt | Toronto Star.

Advice for Policy Makers and Researchers

While this was written to assist government scientists and policy makers better understand each other these are both very good lists, compiled by British and Australia policy makers and researchers. They capture the dynamic well between the technical expert and the more general policy advisor roles and perspectives, and tap into themes of ideology, evidence and risk of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism.

Good reading both within the public service and with the political level, given some of the ongoing tensions regarding evidence and anecdote and how the different perspectives play out.

Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making

  1. Making policy is really difficult
  2. No policy will ever be perfect
  3. Policy makers can be expert too
  4. Policy makers are not a homogenous group
  5. Policy makers are people too
  6. Policy decisions are subject to extensive scrutiny
  7. Starting policies from scratch is very rarely an option
  8. There is more to policy than scientific evidence
  9. Public opinion matters
  10. Economics and law are top dogs in policy advice
  11. Policy makers do understand uncertainty
  12. Parliament and government are different
  13. Policy and politics are not the same thing
  14. The UK has a brilliant science advisory system
  15. Policy and science operate on different timescales
  16. There is no such thing as a policy cycle
  17. The art of making policy is a developing science
  18. ‘Science policy’ isn’t a thing
  19. Policy makers aren’t interested in science per se
  20. We need more research’ is the wrong answer

Top 20 things politicians need to know about science

  1. Differences and chance cause variation
  2. No measurement is exact
  3. Bias is rife
  4. Bigger is usually better for sample size
  5. Correlation does not imply causation
  6. Regression to the mean can mislead
  7. Extrapolating beyond the data is risky
  8. Beware the base-rate fallacy
  9. Controls are important
  10. Randomisation avoids bias
  11. Seek replication, not pseudoreplication
  12. Scientists are human
  13. Significance is significant
  14. Separate no effect from non-significance
  15. Effect size matters
  16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked
  17. Extreme measurements may mislead
  18. Study relevance limits generalisations
  19. Feelings influence risk perception
  20. Dependencies change the risks


Former CIC mandarin says several public policies came from minister’s anecdotes |

Article from Hill Times today on the occasion of my book launch. Open event, The 3 Brewers, Bank and Sparks, today between 5 and 7 pm. Look forward to seeing many Ottawa-based people there. Best price for paper version of book ($15, HST and shipping included).

Andrew Griffith offers an insider’s account about the major cultural shift in the public service when the Conservatives formed government back in 2006.

When the Conservatives won government in 2006, the federal public service was not prepared for the ideological change to public policy-making, says a former top mandarin and author of the new book Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism.

“One of the funny things about the relationship between the political level and official level is that we’re both equally certain in our own truth,” said Andrew Griffith, a former 30-year veteran of the public service, in an interview with The Hill Times. “A party comes in, they’ve developed a platform, they’re absolutely convinced they’re right and that they have the truth and they were elected on that platform and, similarly, we in the public service are convinced that we’re absolutely right, we have the studies, the research, the evidence—how can anybody disagree with us?”

Mr. Griffith, a former director general at the Canadian Heritage Department who worked on multiculturalism policy, is launching his new book in Ottawa on Sept. 23 at The Three Brewers, 240 Sparks St., from 5 to 7 p.m.

He moved over to the Citizenship and Immigration department when Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) was named the minister in 2008 and took the multiculturalism files with him. Using his experience with implementing multiculturalism and citizenship policy, Mr. Griffith wrote an insider’s account about the major cultural shift in the public service when the Conservatives formed government.

“In this particular transition, the perspective, or worldview, of both sides was so different. We had the Calgary crowd—by and large the Conservative Party wanted smaller government, less government intervention and was more skeptical of the power of government to actually do good,” Mr. Griffith told The Hill Times in a phone interview last week. “We live in the Ottawa bubble, Central Canada, and, by and large, civil servants are small ‘l’ liberals. You know, you don’t join government because you want to shrink it generally, maybe the people in Finance do, but, generally speaking, the people who join government have a belief in the power of government to do good. It doesn’t mean they’re big government people, it’s just a different world view.”

Mr. Griffith said the differing worldviews “sharpened tensions” between the public service and the new government.

“Previous transitions hadn’t had, I don’t think, such a sharp tension. I don’t recall that during the Mulroney government, because, again, it was more of a Central Canadian government,” he said. “They came with strong ideas and knew what they didn’t like.”

In the case of multiculturalism and citizenship policy, he said, the Conservative government’s worldview was a complete departure from that of former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien.

“They didn’t like much of the traditional approach in multiculturalism and everything like that, sort of the old-style focusing on visible minority issues. On citizenship, it was very clear they wanted a stronger reference to Canadian history, military, Crown, etc., and so the way they would come at the issues is we’d have a meeting, and they’d say, ‘Here’s what we want,’ and we’d initially figure it out. In many cases, it appeared very foreign to us in terms of what we knew about Canada, so it took us time to absorb it and react to it and find a way to say, ‘Now we understand it so we can actually work with you,’ ” he said.

Mr. Griffith said several of the policies generated were based on anecdotes that the minister or his staff would bring back and attempt to fix.

For example, in Policy Arrogance, he outlined that in the case of making changes to citizenship rules around “birth tourism”—or dealing with people who planned trips to Canada so that their baby would be born on Canadian soil and be granted automatic citizenship—anecdotes “trumped” evidence he said, because there was very little data to begin with.

“The minister admitted that he did not know the extent of the problem even as he made the case to crack down on birth tourism,” Mr. Griffith wrote. “Officials struggled with this lack of hard numbers as stories emerged in the Quebec and B.C. media.”

Mr. Griffith wrote that the CIC later engaged with medical associations and hospitals to “ascertain the extent of the issue,” but did not consult with provincial health systems that would have allowed them to see how many births were paid or not paid through the public system for which citizens and permanent residents are eligible.

“Such analysis would help quantify the extent of the issue, and help inform cost-benefit analysis of any change to citizenship legislation to align Canadian policy with other jurisdictions that no longer allow automatic citizenship upon birth,” Mr. Griffith wrote. “In developing policy and program advice, the paucity of data and analysis made it hard to provide advice on the likely impact of any policy changes. More, the minister’s wishes for early implementation meant there were limits to appropriate due diligence.”

Mr. Griffith told The Hill Times that public servants couldn’t discount Mr. Kenney’s anecdotes, however, because he went to at least 20 community events three weekends out of four.

“His anecdotes had a reasonable amount of weight,” he said, noting that officials did not take the anecdotes wholly; as the people Mr. Kenney was seeing was not entirely representative of the Canadian population.

“He was more in touch with the communities than we were. Our evidence tended to be large-scale research and surveys, which are very valid, and his evidence tended to be anecdotal, but it was such a large base of anecdotes that it was something that we actually had to take into account.”

When it came time to rewrite the citizenship guide, Discover Canada, the public servants working on it “didn’t get it right at all,” so the ministerial and political staff “actually wrote it for us” and the department went from there, Mr. Griffith said.

“Normally that isn’t done,” he said, adding that later, the minister’s office would have “a challenge session” going through each page one by one. “We were able to understand why they wanted it and the why is actually more important than the what because if you understand the why, then you can figure out a way to make it work. It would be difficult at the beginning … and then as you got through those discussions, you could get to more pragmatic ‘okay, now that we understand what you want, we can move in this direction.’ It served as a bit of a dance.”

Mr. Griffith said that while he was “never afraid” to give advice under these circumstances, his four years at Citizen and Immigration Canada was a “real learning experience.”

Writing that experience down “was actually satisfying and cathartic,” he said.

“My intent was actually to provoke a bit of a discussion initially within the public service about the relationship issue between the government and the public service because my sense was that we didn’t manage the relationship very well at the beginning,” Mr. Griffith said about writing the book.

“We weren’t responsive enough to the change in direction of the government so we appeared obstructive at best or resisting or even disloyal perhaps to the incoming government so I think there were some lessons learned for the public service in terms of how we manage that transition that hopefully by having a more open discussion about how we actually deal with a situation where we have an incoming government that has a very different worldview from our worldview in a way that actually doesn’t exacerbate tensions, but actually sort of helps develop a more normal working relationship.”

There was a difficult line between the public servants giving “fearless advice” and putting into practice the “loyal implementation” role, he said.

In the end, Mr. Griffith said, he felt at CIC that public servants were able to balance both, despite going through the “Kübler-Ross stages of grief and loss—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—in dealing with the traumatic challenge to their role, as well as to the long-standing consensus between previous Liberal and Conservative parties on citizenship and multiculturalism issues.”

Mr. Griffith told The Hill Times that, for the most part, Mr. Kenney was “actually quite good” at listening to advice, although “he wouldn’t necessarily accept it.”

While he couldn’t say whether this was widespread in other departments, Mr. Griffith said politicians are likely more drawn to anecdotes than scientific evidence and statistics because they are people’s people.

“This government is more ideological than previous governments. This government does tend to discount evidence. This government does actually tend to cut things that do provide evidence, like the census. All that’s on the public record,” Mr. Griffith said.

“How it works in individual departments, I’m not close enough to know that. I do know from some people that yes, some ministers are more receptive to listening to advice but again that always gets run by ‘The Centre’ [the PMO]. In the end, whether the minister listens or not is almost less important than whether ‘The Centre,’ i.e. the PMO, listens to it,” Mr. Griffith said.

As for whether things will change if and when a new government is elected, Mr. Griffith said it would likely be easier under a non-Conservative government.“My sense is that this Conservative government situation with the public service is probably fairly unique,” he said, noting that if the Liberals or NDP formed a government, they would likely have more confidence in the public service. “But either way, the public service has to be prepared to respond to whatever decision Canadians make at the polls. That’s always the bottom line in terms of the loyal implementation part.”

Bea Vongdouangchanh, The Hill Times, 23 September 2013

Former CIC mandarin says several public policies came from minister’s anecdotes |

Half a cheer for Jason Kenney’s revolution in immigration policy | Toronto Star

Natalie Brender in The Star on Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, focussing on the risks and limits of anecdotes for decision-making. Nice to see words like epistemological  (theory of knowledge – yes, I had to look it up too!) to capture the issues and dynamics.

In the end, I am more in the camp of anecdotes and evidence, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each one, but using both to ensure the best possible policy outcome.  Article as follows:

Andrew Griffith, a retired senior official at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, has just published a book about the tense period beginning in 2007 that saw minister Jason Kenney bring a tidal wave of change to two federal departments. Among the many virtues of Griffith’s book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, is a striking commitment to epistemological modesty and self-reflection.

Throughout his case studies of various policy issues, Griffith underlines how officials working on multiculturalism and citizenship issues under Kenney were forced to confront their own latent ideologies and grapple with challenges to their expertise under a regime that broke starkly from the approach of previous governments.

From vocabulary to policy priorities to the deepest questions of what counted as sound evidence for policy-making, the Conservatives upended decades of received wisdom. For instance, Griffith reports, Kenney and his staff held in particular odium the blame-laying perspectives taken by “downtown activists” and researchers in analyzing mainstream discrimination toward cultural minorities.

An organization’s use of terms such as “oppression,” “white power” and “racialized communities” became grounds for striking it from a pool of grant applicants. This aversion was part of the minister’s larger distaste for the issue of barriers facing visible-minority Canadians, and his desire to shift focus toward discrimination within and among minority communities.

Because Griffith writes as a consummately professional public servant, he doesn’t pass explicit judgment on the policy shifts effected during the Kenney years. As he notes, it’s the job of elected officials to decide government priorities, and the job of public servants to be loyal implementers of those decisions.

On the other hand, it’s also the job of public servants to provide expert insight and advice to their ministers, who are supposed to take that advice into account in making policy decisions. It’s on this score that some of the book’s most revealing insights lie, since there was an unprecedented parting of ways between Kenney and officials on the question of what counted as sound evidence.

Multiculturalism and citizenship officials had long been used to basing their insight on social scientific research such as large-scale surveys and data collection on a range of standard topics. In Kenney, they were confronted with a minister who took his bearing from first-person anecdotes gathered from tireless meetings across Canada. (Such a minister, in the words of another official quoted by Griffith, was “like Halley’s comet, only coming by once every 76 years.”) Through the nuggets of information gained from his unmatched ear-to-the-ground contact with the nation’s increasingly suburban ethnic communities, Kenney was confident in his knowledge of their realities and concerns.

That confidence accompanied what Griffith alludes to as “the minister’s (and the government’s) general skepticism about social policy research,” and their disdain for the “downtown activists” who had forged deep ties with multiculturalism staff. Two starkly different “evidence bases,” as he puts it, were being drawn on by the political and bureaucratic levels.

Notably, Griffith does not depict the outcome as an unmitigated disaster from a policy-making perspective. Kenney was indeed gleaning real insights into experiences and concerns within different communities, which could not be captured in large national surveys or data sets. He gathered anecdotal reports on topics it had never occurred to officials to investigate systematically – for instance, on violations of citizenship integrity within certain immigrant groups in matters such as cheating on citizenship tests or so-called “birth tourism.”

Expert officials sometimes found to their surprise that the minister’s revamped multiculturalism priorities met with approval among diverse communities in the department’s focus group testing. And in Griffith’s own judgment, the anecdotal evidence that Kenney gained sometimes did produce worthwhile new directions in policy and programming (such as initiatives to address discrimination within and among ethnic groups).

For these reasons, Griffith writes, “officials had to learn to listen to — and respect — the key messages and insights coming from the minister, reflecting his anecdotes and conversations from his extensive community outreach.” It was a wrenching adjustment for many to have their expertise challenged and world views dismissed. Eventually, though, most staff took on board the insights that anecdote could offer, and worked to incorporate them into programming and policy.

There is no indication that Kenney and his staff reciprocated in the epistemological modesty department. In one exceptional instance, Griffith reports, officials found studies that managed to persuade them that racism and discrimination indeed pose real barriers to the success of certain ethnic groups in Canada. But other than that, the learning and broadening of world views seems to have been entirely one-sided.

And in the bigger picture, even anecdotes reflecting a partial reality give precious little for policymakers to go on. Stories of fraud whispered in the minister’s ear don’t tell policy makers how widespread the incidence of citizenship-test cheating or birth tourism is. They don’t tell policymakers what the relative dollar costs of taking action or keeping the status quo will be; nor do they predict what side effects might come from dramatically changing current policy.

Only careful data collection and analysis can do that. And that’s precisely what the Kenney regime (and the Harper government) couldn’t be bothered with in their haste to get tough on “abusers of Canadians’ generosity.”

Writing as a loyal civil servant, Griffith doesn’t say it explicitly, but the lessons of his book are clear. Anecdote is a lousy basis for policymaking, and modesty and self-reflection are not virtues to be expected only on one side of the relationship between the public service and politicians. As Chris Alexander takes over these files as minister of immigration, he could get a fine start by bearing those truths in mind.

Half a cheer for Jason Kenney’s revolution in immigration policy | Toronto Star.

Column: What’s the evidence for evidence-based policy?

William Watson raises some valid and important points about evidence-based policy and the limits. While some data and evidence is largely neutral and firm (e.g., Census data) other evidence can be subject to confirmation and other biases, in addition to the limits of our understanding of the complexity of society and behaviour. Evidence is still better than anecdote, but it limits also need to be understood. #W2P #GOC

Column: What’s the evidence for evidence-based policy?.