15 May 2007

Polling in public policy

From David Herle, a provocative discussion of the role played by public opinion research in modern politics and government.

As the blurb from this month's Policy Options puts it:
"The role public opinion research plays in guiding governmental communications is often dismissed as partisan and not necessarily in the public interest," writes David Herle, who begs to differ. As the former pollster to the federal finance ministry in the 1990s, Herle’s polls and focus groups shaped support for balancing the budget and creating the fiscal dividend. Other policies, he writes, "can be sacrificed because (Ottawa) couldn’t talk about them to Canadians in a way that made sense to them." He also identifies five rules of current Canadian public opinion: Canadian social values, transparent governance, activism rather than retrenchment in government, and the enduring regionalism and evolving views of the Canadian federation.
Herle has a striking observation on how Canadians view the separation of powers between federal and provincial governments. In light of recent musings by local nationalists, Herle's assessment might give a clue as to why the tone of the provincial government's most recent battle with the federal government is going over like a lead balloon:
Rule 5 — Views of the federation are evolving. The fight between "a strong central government," on one side, and "a community of communities," on the other side, is over, and both sides won.

Most Canadians have settled on a division of labour between levels of government that is based on what they see as the appropriate roles and competencies.

Program delivery is seen as being best done by provincial or even local governments. They are seen as being better able to manage programs and are thought to have a better sense of what the actual needs are, province by province, community by community.

The cities agenda is coming up into the national agenda for a reason. However, that does not mean that people want or will accept a balkanized Canada. They see it as completely appropriate for the federal government to fund programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction — in fact, most of the things people really care about, such as health care, education, early childhood education and the environment, are outside federal jurisdiction. They would not stand for a federal government that refused to help in those areas. In addition, they want the federal government to demand national principles and consistent approaches and applications.