Use of Research-Based Evidence in Public Policy in Canada, MRIA Study

ESOMAR’s Canadian partner, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) has undertaken a comprehensive research study exploring the usage of data and information in governance and policy making and how such usage can be improved, focusing on public opinion research data.

This qualitative research project was conducted between September 2014 and February 2015 through 39 in-depth interviews with members of target audiences such as federal public servants, political strategists, academia, media, NGOs and others.

Some of the key findings this research offered related to the type of information considered vital in governance and what the perceived shortcomings of the information used by government are. Items such as demographic information, information in government databases and socio-economic information were routinely described as important due to it describing basic population demographics, thus providing baseline for social science survey research. The research highlighted that this type of input further informs governments about the nature and extend of interaction with individuals, maintaining the government’s accountability. Altitudinal data gaps, poor, undetailed and outdated data were identified as some of the key shortcoming of government-used data.

The stakeholders interviewed for the study further recognised subordinating evidence to politics as the most frequently perceived shortcoming in the way the government uses information. That being said nearly all of the thought leaders felt that there has been a significant change in the way the federal government uses information in decision-making. Two specific changes were most frequently identified, and namely the lack of interest in data and the increasing tendency to identify some evidence as less important due to partisan considerations. The lack of interest in data and subordination of evidence to politics have in turn impacted the government’s data collection procedures, even leading to public service employees being perceived as less and less capable of fulfilling their roles.

One of the most interesting findings, however, relates to evidence for the perceived importance of Public Opinion Research (POR) in the mechanics of governments. The study argues that the opinion leaders were unanimous in agreeing that it is important for the government to consult with Canadians and relevant stakeholders when making decisions. When asked, many of the interviewees identified POR as a practice, which reflects a healthy democratic society – “a government that derives its mandate from the people, and is accountable to those people, must concern itself with the views of the people it represents.” POR is a mechanism that allows for the period consultation between governments not only during elections but also between elections on matters that affect them. The survey underlines the importance of POR in informing governments in ways of improving their policy and decision-making. It keeps the government informed on attitudes, beliefs, values, concerns of the people that policies affect. The research holds, however, that POR is an effective tool for consulting with Canadians and target audiences when it is properly conducted. The interviewees underline the importance of POR being conducted in a methodologically sound manner by reputable practitioners adhering to well-established industry-wide standards.

And while POR was identified as useful at various stages of the decision-making process, participants routinely added that, while important, PR is only one tool available to the government. A number of perceived risks of using POR in governance decision-making were identified with ‘relying on POR too heavily’ and ‘poor interpretation of results’ being the two most frequent ones.

For a more detailed account on the examples of the value of POR and suggestions on the improvements of POR, please consult with the MRIA’s white paper on this research here.