Recent Policy Options articles have reflected on the need for public sector reform to deal with “wicked problems” related to decentralization, outsourcing, lack of public trust, lack of openness and the politicization of policy advice. Donald Savoie argues that the public service, with its obsolete policies and processes, has come so irreparably off its moorings that only an independent royal commission can fix it. Others, including Daniel Caron, Evert Lindquist and Robert Shepherd, call for internal reform processes.

An obvious question is why experiences over the past 50 or so years with both royal commissions and internal reforms have had such poor results. One factor has been the lack of the kind of reliable, granular evidence that would be needed to assess and learn from past initiatives that would also be needed to ensure that new directions can be managed in a transparent, accountable manner. As Caron, Lindquist and Shepherd say, institutional learning must be based on ongoing evidence and much of that needed evidence has, until now, not existed.

However, that is changing. As I demonstrate in a recent article, a radical improvement in evidence has become possible as a result of the availability of rich sources of new information, new ways of combining data from multiple sources in ways that protect privacy and the development of new predictive analytic tools based on big data. Much of this new evidence will be based on calculations using detailed administrative files. Ground-breaking information from other sources are on the horizon. For example, the use of data from personal monitoring devices from volunteers (with guaranteed anonymity) will be possible in the near future.

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Another factor contributing to the failure of past reforms has been a tendency to examine the way in which services are administered separately from the actual content of those services. Many issues of public trust, morale, transparency, efficiency and service quality can only be addressed though deep changes in outdated policies and programs. They cannot be addressed by changes in the way programs are administered by the public service.

A third factor is that most reforms have taken place within existing programming and jurisdictional silos. This has made things worse by reinforcing overly fragmented programming, especially in the social policy area. Social policy in Canada is too often characterized by confusing sets of income supports and tax measures administered by both orders of government as well as overlapping but uncoordinated services provided by health care, educational and community organizations.

If the goal is to help people improve the quality of their lives and to increase trust between individuals and their governments, reforms need to be based on accountable partnerships that provide integrated services and supports based on an individual’s needs and aspirations. In practice, that hasn’t happened, largely because there’s been no source of routine evidence about which mixes of intervention are likely to work best for people with diverse characteristics in different circumstances.

However, that could change soon. Formerly wicked problems will be much easier to solve. Progress will soon make it possible to produce the kind of evidence that will allow us to learn from past experience and will support the accountability regimes needed to sustain reform efforts. That same evidence will also support major reform in the way policies are formulated, and the way in which programs are designed and delivered.

The new evidence will allow powerful new kinds of causal analysis. For example, it will become possible to make comparisons of the previous and subsequent characteristics and experiences of the participants in particular programs with those of non-participants with similar characteristics and in similar situations. This information would allow analysis of which programs (and combinations of programs) are working best, for whom and in what circumstances.

Using predictive analytic techniques, information on “what is likely to work best” will be available instantly – at the time when decisions are being made on choices of interventions. It will allow programs to continually improve and evolve based on automatic feedback loops showing what has been working best for people, including those who now feel alienated by standard, often fragmented programs that do not reflect their individual circumstances.

Over time, the new information is likely to reshape the way in which people are matched with programs. It would support the growth of an independent case management function where individuals with the greatest needs are referred to the service most likely to be effective (or, often, a combination of services and income supports) by counsellors who have access to evidence on what is likely to work best, regardless of who offers the service. The same information would allow other individuals, acting on their own, to learn what services exist and which are likely to work best for them given their needs and interests.

Development has reached a point where Statistics Canada is considering plans to use these new techniques to radically improve its social statistics. It is the only agency with the mandate and technical capacity to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of the source data and to ensure the quality of the resulting statistics.

The next logical step would be for it to gradually and cautiously enter into partnership arrangements with agencies in different jurisdictions and in different policy domains. Those agencies who wish to be early reformers can experiment with ways of using the anonymous “what works” evidence using the big data that is securely held within Statistics Canada.

It will take time to develop a fully mature system based on the new analytics. Progress will be slow and uneven across different policy domains. Issues related to public acceptability will be paramount. However, much of the needed background development work has already taken place. If the demand is there, significant progress is possible in many areas within five to 10 years.

To be successful, a public sector reform initiative should have a broad mandate that will result in the creation of the inter-agency partnerships needed to test out the new “what is likely to work best” evidence in practical program and policy applications. It should also propose ways of systematically applying lessons learned to mainstream programming.

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