Too Many Studies?

A number of recent commentaries have disparaged the value of studies made on important issues of government policy. I beg to differ. The studies can be a useful contribution to decision making.

Their value is three fold. First, they are typically led by thought leaders who listen to both the concerns of interested citizens and the advice of knowledgeable subject matter experts. Frequently they involve substantial interactions between players who start from diametrically opposed positions.

Secondly, they are able to put ideas into play without worrying about political acceptability. Thus an independent report can propose changes in taxation or resource policy without politicians having to take sides. The analysis can help explain the problem before government has to propose a solution. If the proposals are well-researched the debate has some chance of focusing on matters of substance rather than the merits of sound-bites.

Thirdly, they leave a permanent record of analysis against which the actions (or inaction) of politicians can be judged. Thus, for example, the worthy Corpus Sanchez report on health care in 2007 was immediately endorsed by the Rodney MacDonald government, which nevertheless took no substantive steps toward implementation.

The studies can be apolitical. Three of the studies received by the current government were commissioned by the NDP government that preceded them. Unlike some of the early NDP commissions these three did a good job of asking the right questions and letting the panels go where the relevant facts took them.

The report on the prospects for a Yarmouth ferry, commissioned and received by the NDP, provided clear-eyed analysis of the meagre prospects for returns in the best of circumstances, and how a potential operator should be chosen. No reading of the report would have encouraged a deal with the financially weak and inexperienced STM Quest as operator. Yet all three parties expressed unconditional support for proceeding.

The Wheeler commission on fracking and the Doelle-Lahey commission on aquaculture were established by the NDP as a way of punting the issue past the next election. Nevertheless they each made valuable contributions to the advancement of policy, in particular by giving all sides to the issue a chance to express their views , while  at the same time insisting that decisions should ultimately be fact-based.

The Liberals appear to be embracing the Doelle-Lahey conclusions, with the tentative support of all players, an outcome that could not have been achieved in any other way. On the other hand former energy minister Younger immediately dismissed the Wheeler report, thus dishonouring both the panelists and those who made thoughtful contributions to their work.

Former Dal president Tom Traves, well buttressed by a series of scathing reports from the Auditor General, produced a sensible series of recommendations for better economic development policy. These were endorsed by government with Invest Nova Scotia as the principal new vehicle for going forward. Almost a year later the board has been appointed but we still await regulations, now scheduled for this month.

If this has been the fate of narrowly focused initiative economic development recommendations one can only wonder at the prospects for education reform. A wide-ranging set of initiatives was proposed in the fall by the panel chaired by Myra Freeman. Education minister Casey responded on schedule in January with a massively ambitious agenda for reform. We’ll see how it turns out.

Also in the fall a thoughtful and provocative study on taxation was produced by former Ontario cabinet member Laurel Broten. It is most unfortunate that, due to delays in the fall agenda, the legislature had not yet adjourned .So the party leaders felt it necessary to respond to the report before having read it, largely pre-empting the possibility of more thoughtful debate.

Finally consider the wide-ranging Ivany report, commissioned by the NDP and rushed to completion so that it could inform the agenda of the new government. It has shown up constantly in political pronouncements and media commentaries. Yet it is not clear whether the government feels committed to achieving the goals set out in the Ivany report.

So we have an ample supply of useful and topical reports which have prepared the ground for government action. Regardless of their merits it is certainly true that we don’t need more of them. The reports on their own do not achieve change.

The spring sitting of the legislature will tell us a lot about this government’s willingness and ability to benefit from the groundwork that the reports provide. The province faces big challenges that require big choices. Its show time.


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