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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Research Use Capacity in Provincial Governments

Creso Sa
Daniel Hamlin

Three things to know about research use capacity in provincial ministries:

1. For decades, researchers have indicated that the use of high-quality research has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of public policy.   Yet, research use has remained stubbornly minimal at provincial levels of government where many of Canada’s most critical policies on healthcare, education, and economics are formulated. Understanding the factors that bolster provincial capacity to use research in the policy process is important for increasing research use.

2. Although research use capacity in provincial ministries appears to be generally low, some ministries have undertaken initiatives to enhance capacity in recent years by developing research use coordination strategies, including forming research steering committees, creating researcher in residence positions, and implementing ministry-wide training programs.

3. Other important capacity building efforts include appointing civil servants with research expertise to leadership positions as well as developing working relationships with academic researchers at local universities.

Three myths about research use capacity in provincial ministries:

Myth #1: Governments don’t care about research.

The Reality: Civil servants across provincial ministries share a general interest in using research to inform decision-making. However, civil servants are often uncertain how to apply research findings to their specific contexts.  

Myth #2: Vast resources are needed for governments to invest in research capacity

The Reality: Larger provinces may have greater financial resources. However, smaller provinces without large operating budgets may be tighter knit communities and able to develop relationships with local researchers for accessing and generating locally relevant research.

Myth #3: Governments don’t care about the views of academics

The Reality: Governments need to act with available information, and their decisions reflect a number of factors beyond what is known about the problem. Moreover, civil servants may not have well-developed channels for gaining access to scholars. However, deliberate initiatives aimed at developing on-going relationships appear useful for creating enduring partnerships with scholars.  

Further Reading:

Sá, C. & Hamlin, D. (2015). Research use capacity in provincial governments. Canadian Public Administration, 58(3), 1-20.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

What is a Meeting? Municipal Councils and the Ontario Ombudsman

Andrew Sancton, Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario

Municipal councils are generally required to hold their meetings in public. In order to meet these requirements they need to know the definition of a “meeting”. In Ontario in recent years there has been much confusion about this. Similar confusion might well spread to other provinces.

Three things to know about the definition of meetings of municipal councils:

1. Statutory definitions of such meetings in Canadian provinces only refer to official meetings, but judges have extended the definition to include less formal “retreats” and “strategy sessions” where councillors “materially advance” the course of municipal business.  In certain specified circumstances councils are allowed to meet in camera.

2. “Sunshine” laws in many US states prevent state legislators and municipal councillors from discussing public business with each other outside formal meetings.

3. The Ontario ombudsman has applied the spirit of American “sunshine” to his rulings about informal meetings of municipal councillors in Ontario.

Three myths about the Ontario ombudsman’s definition of meetings:

Myth #1: The ombudsman must have had some Canadian statutory or judicial bases for his decisions that groups of municipal councillors meeting together to “lay the groundwork necessary” for the advancement of municipal business are conducting illegally closed municipal meetings.

The Reality: There is no statutory or judicial basis for the ombudsman’s position on this matter.

Myth #2: What the ombudsman decides on this issue doesn’t matter because he has no authority to invalidate municipal actions or to impose penalties and his decisions only apply in Ontario.

The Reality: Municipal councillors who have been condemned by the ombudsman have suffered loss of reputation and, in some significant cases, have been unable to be re-elected.  Others have become very nervous about any conversations with their colleagues. Councillors in other provinces wonder if similar rulings might one day be made in their provinces. 

Myth #3:  We would all be better off if local politicians held all their discussions about public business in public.

The Reality: Highly debatable!  If this is true, should we not extend the same logic to meetings of federal and provincial cabinets and party caucuses?

Further Reading: 

Sancton, A. (2015), What is a meeting? Municipal councils and the Ontario ombudsman. Canadian Public Administration, 58: 426–443

Andrew Sancton is the author of numerous books and articles about municipal politics and institutions, most recently Canadian Local Government: An Urban Perspective 2nd edn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Delegated Administrative Authorities

Mark Winfield
York University

My new study published in the September 2015 edition of Canadian Public Administration “Public Safety in Private Hands Revisited: the Case of Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority” examines  Ontario’s experience with the use of delegated administrative authorities as models for the delivery of public safety and consumer protection regulatory functions.

Three things you should know about the use of delegated administrative authorities: 
1. What are delegated administrative authorities (DAAs)?
DAAs are private, non-profit corporations, usually established by statute, for the purpose of assuming regulatory functions or delivering services previously carried out by government agencies. They are governed by boards of directors, a minority of whom are appointed by the delegating government. 
2. How widespread is their use?
Since their first appearance in the early 1990s, DAAs have come to be the option of choice among provincial governments for the delivery of any new regulatory functions that may be required, and for many existing but low-profile regulatory activities. They are particularly prevalent in areas of “technical” safety related regulatory functions such as amusement rides, elevators, and fuel handling and storage.  Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have been especially enthusiastic in their embrace of the model. 
3. What are the key concerns about the DAA model?
The performance of DAAs as safety regulators, particularly Ontario’s Technical Safety and Standards Authority (TSSA) has been the subject of ongoing concerns from legislative officers, non-governmental organizations and the media. Criticism of the DAA model has been reinforced by a number of high profile regulatory failures on the part of the TSSA, most notably the 2008 Sunrise Propane explosion and fire in Toronto. The model has also been criticized for the potential for conflicts of interest in its governance structure and weak accountability and oversight structures.
Three myths about DAAs
Myth #1: “DAAs are working effectively and efficiently as regulators of public safety
and consumer protection” – Ontario Commission on the Reform of Public Services 2012.
The reality: Serious concerns have been raised repeatedly about the performance of DAAs as public safety and consumer protection regulators by Ontario’s Auditor General, committees of the Legislative Assembly, non-governmental organizations and the media.    
Myth #2: The Government of Ontario believes that the existing DAA model “is an effective service delivery model that provides regulatory oversight while improving regulatory efficiencies. It is consistent with best practices for accountability and governance.” – 2012 Ontario Budget.

The reality: While remaining publicly  steadfast in its support of the DAA model, in practice the province has adopted legislation that has significantly strengthened its oversight and control of the TSSA and other DAAs, with the implication of substantial concerns within government about their performance and accountability and governance structures.

Myth #3: DAAs allow ministers to avoid responsibility for regulatory failures

The reality: A key factor in Ontario’s decision to dramatically revise the legislative framework for its DAAs was the recognition that ministers would be held accountable by the legislature, media and public for what were seen as regulatory and management failures, regardless of the service delivery mechanisms in place.  These risks of political exposure prompted the establishment of much tighter oversight and control structures than originally had been put in place.  

Further Reading:
Winfield, Mark (2015) “Public Safety in Private Hands revisited: The case of Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority”. Canadian Public Administration 58(3): 444-467.
Dr. Mark Winfield is an Associate Professor with the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University and Co-Chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative. His latest book is Blue-Green Province: The Environment and the Political Economy of Ontario.