True test of Trudeau's expensive data devotion will be whether he follows the numbers

Justin Trudeau's Liberals are a group that enthuses about "evidence-based policy" and "smarter decisions" and has concerned itself with "deliverology." And they are apparently hungry for much more data.

Government spending tens of millions for new data about health, housing, child care and more

Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is investing tens of millions of dollars to gather more data in a variety of policy areas. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's Liberals are a group that enthuses about "evidence-based policy" and "smarter decisions" and has concerned itself with "deliverology."

And they are apparently hungry for more data.

"The challenge that we're facing is one of — and we saw this more acutely a year ago in Vancouver — a dearth of data," the prime minister said recently when asked about what his government might do about Toronto's heated real estate market.

Adam Vaughan, a parliamentary secretary and Liberal MP in downtown Toronto, says there are theories about what's happening within the city's real estate market, but not enough is known about what's actually going on. 

"We've got to ... get the data," he told CBC's Power & Politics. "We have to manage the data so that we can understand where the problems are emerging and deal with them quickly."

Such concerns follow a spring budget that, between the promises of jobs and roads and social assistance, included new commitments to data: tens of millions of dollars to be spent collecting new numbers on health care, housing, transportation and other concerns.

More money for more data

The Liberals have promised $39.9 million for the creation of a new "Housing Statistics Framework," while another $241 million will go to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to, in part, "improve data collection and analytics."

The Canadian Institute for Health Information will receive $53 million to address "health data gaps" and strengthen "reporting on health system performance," while $13.6 million will go to Statistics Canada to "broaden tourism data collection."

Developing a "Clean Technology Data Strategy" will cost $14.5 million and Transport Canada will receive $50 million to establish a new "Canadian Centre on Transportation Data."

Meanwhile, the new infrastructure bank will be committed to working with other levels of government and Statistics Canada to "undertake an ambitious data initiative on Canadian infrastructure."

A week after the budget's release, the government announced $95 million would be spent gathering data on the availability of child care.

So what might all these numbers add up to?

It might simply give government a better understanding of what's happening across the country. As one senior Liberal official notes, more data can also lead to the discovery of previously unrecognised problems.

Such data would then, in theory, inform and guide government decisions.

That's an ideal of evidence-based policy, an aspiration for more rational politics that has arisen in recent years and might now be viewed as a technocratic rival to the emotional, anti-establishment populism that brought Donald Trump to the White House. Witness this month's marches for science across the United States, which echoed a similar protest on Parliament Hill in 2012.

Marchers advance toward city hall during the March for Science Los Angeles on April 22. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

"Data allows you to know what is the scope of the problem you're trying to solve, or is there a problem that actually needs solving, and to measure how you're doing and if [your policy] is working," said the senior Liberal official.

If all that data is made public, it could also foster a better policy debate.

Incomplete record on evidence

The signature first act of Trudeau's government was to restore the mandatory long-form census, the cancellation of which galvanized concerns about the former Conservative government's approach to evidence and policy.

The rest of their agenda in this regard remains a work in progress. A chief science adviser has not yet been appointed. Still pending are improvements to the annual reporting on the performance of government programs and reform of the estimates process, through which Parliament approves the government's spending plans. New legislation for the parliamentary budget officer has been panned as too weak and restrictive.

Will they use the data? Will they listen to it? Even if it shows that some of their policies aren't working? That will be the true test.- Katie Gibbs, Evidence for Democracy

Liberals nonetheless express interest in focusing on outcomes, not inputs: on what is accomplished with public money, not just what is spent. More information about what's happening in and around the areas touched by public policy would help with that.

"Collecting the data is the first step in making policies that are informed by evidence and, even more importantly, actually evaluating public policies to see if they are doing what we hoped they would," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of the group Evidence for Democracy.

"So it's certainly important, but it's still just the first step. Will they use the data? Will they listen to it? Even if it shows that some of their policies aren't working? That will be the true test." 

The public transit tax credit

Political debate will always be shaped by values, priorities and public will. Politicians will pick different data points to worry about. Or decide that they aren't particularly interested in certain numbers.

In repealing the public transit tax credit last month, the Liberal government argued it was acting based on evidence that shows the credit was ineffective at increasing transit usage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (as the credit was supposedly introduced to do). That didn't deter both Conservatives and New Democrats from complaining that the Liberals were raising the cost of using public transit.

The Liberals, meanwhile, continue to support a supply management system for the Canadian dairy sector that is deplored by basically every economist with a Twitter account.

Which is to say, it might be too much to hope for perfectly rational politics. But the screaming and shouting might at least include more numbers.


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.