OPINION14 May 2010

Research cuts hit home for Canadian government

It’s to the Canadian market research industry’s eternal credit that they’ve managed to resist the urge to scream “told you so” amid criticism of massive government cuts in spending on public opinion research which have left policy-makers and civil servants with little evidence to work with.

A recent article in the Ottawa Citizen reports on the concerns of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and others about a lack of data needed to assess the performance of government policies and programmes.

The paper pins the blame for this situation squarely on the huge decline in research spend which has fallen from a high of C$31m a year in 2007 to just $8m last year – a far cry from the earlier, comparatively modest (yet still substantial) government pledge to reduce the public opinion research bill by C$10m.

According to Ekos Research’s Frank Graves:

“Research is a dirty word in Ottawa right now. It’s not being done when the country is going through a period of turbulent change and enormous challenges.”

Ekos was once the top supplier of public opinion research to the Canadian government. In 06/07 it handled over C$6m in contracts, which was cut to C$3.28m 07/08 and again in 08/09 to C$1m.

Graves continues:

“We have a policy community operating without evidence and empirical guidance. Every major debate from national unity, free trade, health care, bank reform should have extensive public opinion research to see what the public thinks.”

Judging by the Ottawa Citizen’s report, the situation in Canada is playing out exactly as predicted by the country’s Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, which warned at the time the cuts were announced that the reduction in spend could easily damage policy-making and programme delivery capabilities.

“The real issue is not one of ensuring that this government spends less on public opinion research… but rather of ensuring that Canadians receive the best value and best output from government programmes and policies,” said the MRIA.

The industry must be hoping now that finally their argument will be heard, however belatedly.