In Ontario, we were hit quite badly by the economic downturn in 2008. Jobs were lost, businesses closed and our fiscal position as a province was impacted. The current government – of which I am a member – was elected in 2014 and we ran on a commitment to balance the budget by our 2017/18 fiscal year. Since that commitment, we have stayed on track. How did we do it?
It was important to achieve our fiscal targets but to do so while protecting some of the key services such as education and health care – that Ontarians value and most of which are funded by provincial government. With this in mind, we have undergone something called “Program Review, Renewal and Transformation” (PRRT) where we have been transforming government, looking at every programme line by line to identify whether those programmes are still relevant, effective, efficient and offering value for money. We have then worked across ministries to achieve better outcomes and improve value for money.
An important component of our approach has been the use of evidence-based decision making. For too long, governments around the world have evaluated programmes by focusing on outputs, rather than outcomes. We wanted to be more surgical about identifying what programmes work and those that are not delivering the impact we seek.
Take post-secondary education for example. For years, students planning to attend a university or college in Ontario have been eligible to receive financial aid in the form of grants, interest free loans and bursaries. Some students have been eligible for an education-specific tax credit. The Government of Ontario has also kept tuition fees relatively low by providing significant funding to universities and colleges (universities receive approximately 45% of their funding from the provincial government). We realized that we had a fairly generous system in place to ensure that students could access post-secondary education. The question we asked ourselves was whether there was a way of better delivering that aid and improving outcomes.
What we discovered from going through the outcomes data was that notwithstanding the generosity of these programmes, there are quite a lot of students – particularly from low income families – who had the grades and desire to pursue a post-secondary education but weren’t doing so.
We drilled into this and found out that the perceived financial hurdle was in large part to blame. We learned that one of the key reasons that the financial aid programmewas not delivering results was because of its complexity. We also discovered that not only were a lot of families not accessing the tax credit money and the money that was being taken was not impacting students willingness to pursue a post-secondary education.
As a result we reformed the financial aid system – which was made up of tax credits; a myriad of grants; and student loans. We ultimately decided to eliminate the tax credits and roll them into a simplified grant programme.
Evidence based decision making prompted this critical shift. However, it also begs the question: why is evidence not used more widely in policymaking?
I think there are many factors, the first being the fact that politics – for better or for worse – inevitably plays a role in decision making.
Another issue is the capacity of government to make evidence-based decisions. In my case, I have a background in professional services – I was a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Toronto – a role in which I was trained to help clients base decisions on analytics and evidence. We need to make sure that we build capacity across government to assess how programmes are performing and to use evidence to inform decisions that lead to better outcomes.
This process will be helped – in Ontario at least – by our formation of the Centre of Excellence for Evidence-Based Decision Making – which reports into the president of the Treasury Board in the province. Its responsibility is to develop an enterprise-wide evidence based decision making framework, the tools to support its implementation, develop government’s capacity to this end and work with different ministries on specific projects. This is a tangible step to develop the capacities and skills that are needed to benefit citizens and governments alike.
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