The Other Side of the Divide

Steve Saideman on why the government doesn't always listen to academics, even when people in government want to.
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December 5, 2012
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Last week, I tried to dispel a few myths about the gap between the academic and policy worlds, arguing that some positive trends are leading academics to reach out beyond the Ivory Tower to add their voices and lend their expertise to policy debates. It was a fairly upbeat assessment, but I did foreshadow trouble, suggesting that any gap that exists is not just the product of one side failing to reach out to the other, but of both sides failing to reach out to each other. The problem we face today, or at least in the rest of this post, is the limited enthusiasm the policy world has for the recommendations made by academics and other non-government policy experts. 

In the short time I have lived in Ottawa, I have met many individuals who work in government who are interested in reaching out to academics (and more than just for a beer). These individuals in the Canadian Forces, at the Department of National Defence, at Public Safety, and in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade realize that their need for outside expertise is only increasing as budget cuts mean that there are fewer people inside the government, and that those people are busier than ever, doing more work. So, there is good intent on the policy side of the gap, but these individuals are facing some trends and pressures that make it hard for those outside of government to have much influence.

What are these trends and pressures? First, the logic of politics often trumps what makes the most sense. Second, anti-science attitudes are not just an American phenomenon, even if they are sometimes exaggerated .  Third, this government, more than most, centralizes policy-making, reducing the opportunities for outsiders to influence the process.

There is more going on than these three dynamics, but these are sufficient for explaining the reality I have encountered in my half-year in Ottawa: Those individuals seeking more engagement with the academic side of the city are very, very frustrated, but much more so with the folks in their buildings than with the shaggy folks at the universities.

First, it has always been the case, and always will be the case, that politicians will resist policy recommendations that are politically costly, preferring to do what it takes to stay in office.  Academics tend to make recommendations that would make for more efficient, more effective policies, but these often require short-term investments or costs that politicians will not, or cannot, pay. It takes an enlightened politician (yes, some do exist) to consider what is best for the country in the medium to long term. This spills over to the bureaucracy, where staffers apparently say encouraging things about listening but then bury most (if not all) reports from outside government. Doug Bland’s study, released last year, made it abundantly clear that those working in the Department of National Defence, for instance, ignored input coming from outside.

Second, this particular government seems unimpressed by expertise and the need for more information. The hostility to the census is the clearest example, as having the best information about the population might just be handy for making good public policy. Less information is hardly ever a good thing. News stories over the past few years have made it clear that expertise is only welcome if it fits with existing policy preferences.

Third, in chats with people in government, and in reading what the people who cover the Harper government have to say, it has become quite clear to me that micromanagement is the current government’s modus operandi. Centralization is pretty much the opposite of specialization. If all decisions are made at the centre, then those who have focused on specific issues and places are not going to be influencing decisions, whether they work inside or outside the government.

I had the chance to interview Rick Hillier in his last few months as chief of the defence staff in 2008. At that time, my project was focused on delegation, examining when commanders give responsibility to the people in the field. Hillier argued that it would be a waste of resources, training, and the rest to make decisions in Ottawa that could best be made by those with the most information – those closest to the action. This philosophy of mission command is very much at odds with the orientation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and those around him, who stress making decisions in the narrowest circles in Ottawa.

So, when people ponder the gap between academics and government officials, only part of the blame should be directed at the abstract-thinking, absent-minded professors and other experts. Some of the responsibility falls on the other side, where those in government seem deaf at times.  Part of this is due to the inherent differences of the enterprises, as academics tend not to worry about the job security of the people they are trying to persuade, and policy-makers are focused on the problems of the day. Unfortunately, while academics – as I argued in my previous post –are more responsive than in the past, the trend in the Canadian government these days is hardly a positive one.