The vital role of statistics in public policy and good governance with William B.P. Robson of the C.D. Howe Institute

August 28, 2017

In Canada, statistics have long served as an essential framework in the development of public policy, with organizations from a variety of sectors playing very diverse, but equally important, roles in recognizing, analyzing and addressing key public issues. Many of these organizations, including the Toronto-based C.D. Howe Institute, not only work with Statistics Canada data in the development of policy recommendations—they also require the same level of analytical objectivity in their work.

Like Statistics Canada, the C.D. Howe Institute—headed by President and Chief Executive Officer, William (Bill) P. Robson—has participated in recognizing and analyzing many key public issues, contributing to Canada’s long-held tradition of open and civil debate around public policy. “Canada is fortunate in many ways, notably in the attention evidence and logic get in public debate. Widely available social and economic data are the underpinning of evidence-based policy research, which is why we, at the C.D. Howe Institute, use data from across the entire spectrum of what Statistics Canada has to offer,” he said.

The C.D. Howe Institute’s early days began in Montréal in 1958 as the Private Planning Association of Canada (PPAC), an organization that researched and raised awareness of issues around the economy. Later, an alliance with the C.D. Howe Memorial Foundation led to the Institute’s current name, and over time, the Institute greatly expanded its research program. Today, it is renowned for its commitment to quality research and its integral role in many of Canada’s most important policy initiatives, including its work on government finances, trade liberalization, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans and more recently, its contributions to debates on public infrastructure, telecommunications, healthcare, and energy and the environment. 

Heading the Institute since 2006, Mr. Robson is also a member of Statistics Canada’s National Statistics Council that has, for more than 30 years, advised the Chief Statistician in setting priorities and rationalizing and integrating the programs of Statistics Canada. Its distinguished members come from a variety of backgrounds, donating their time and expertise as nonpartisan experts in their respective domains. In this role, Mr. Robson has and continues to support increased accessibility to a variety of data, including the kind of business and economic microdata available through The Canadian Centre for Data Development and Economic Research (CDER) in Ottawa.

“Among the gratifying developments while I’ve been on the Council was when Statistics Canada made CANSIM and other census data products free of charge in 2012. That greatly facilitated access and use of these data by researchers, including us at the Institute and people who collaborate with us.”

Stewards for the future

A registered charity, the C.D. Howe Institute strives to raise the living standards of Canadians by fostering economically sound public policies. Part of this work involves the complex task of profiling challenges that have not yet emerged in the public mind. To do this, the Institute keeps its eyes and ears open by staying on top of academic research; consulting with leaders in business; and, by ensuring that its team of experts understands the priorities and concerns of policy makers.

“When considering a project, we ask ourselves a few important questions: Does the issue matter for economic growth or sustainability and stability? Will it affect opportunities for individuals or the effectiveness of Canada’s institutions? If we can’t answer ‘yes’ at least once, we turn our attention to something else. Good public policy is largely about being good stewards for the future to ensure that future generations enjoy the same opportunities for advancement that we've enjoyed – that’s a key motivator for us.”

In striving for a more prosperous Canada, the Institute is acutely aware of the challenges faced by young people today, particularly in the areas of education, skills and the labour market. In this vein, the Institute has examined student outcomes among Indigenous and immigrant children, and barriers that could hinder opportunities for skilled workers. In areas where access to, and the quality of, education vary, there are opportunities to “raise the bar by looking at what is and isn’t working, and apply that knowledge across the board,” Mr. Robson said. “We want to reform policies that undermine career prospects, such as apprenticeship rules that can be a barrier to that critical first job.”

Fostering debate

Above all, the C.D. Howe Institute has and continues to foster debate by making all of its research available online and free of charge. The organization promotes its research in the same way Statistics Canada disseminates its data and analyses—in the media, online and in daily reports. According to Mr. Robson, having widely accessible information is the first step in getting the conversation started, even if there’s a difference in analytical opinion. “A certain level of skepticism about all research is normal and desirable—that’s how knowledge advances. Our reputation for accessibility and independence is critical to our mission, not just in our publications and events, but also in attracting our best asset: the people who work at the Institute, and the academics, professional leaders and policy makers who contribute to our work.”

Why statistics matter

A regular user of Statistics Canada data, the C.D. Howe Institute has involved Agency personnel in its review process on topics such as inflation, pensions and national savings. Although the two organizations represent two different sectors—that of government and non-profit—they ultimately work to achieve a similar goal in helping Canadians better understand their country.

“Are our children and grandchildren going to find that the stock of wealth we’ve built in housing, infrastructure and the environment are all in good shape? Are they going to find that their opportunities continue to expand the way ours have? We want people to have a sense of optimism about the future,” Mr. Robson said. “And so, we will continue to work every day to ensure that hope becomes the reality.”

To learn more about Statistics Canada's program of activities to mark Canada 150, visit Telling Canada's story in numbers.

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