Advising for Impact: Lessons from the Rae Review on the Use of Special-Purpose Advisory Commissions

By Clark, Ian D.; Trick, David | Canadian Public Administration, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Advising for Impact: Lessons from the Rae Review on the Use of Special-Purpose Advisory Commissions


Clark, Ian D., Trick, David, Canadian Public Administration


Introduction

Ontario's recent Postsecondary Review (Rae review), led by former premier Bob Rae, was dramatically more successful than any of the nine previous reviews of special-purpose advisory commissions on postsecondary education conducted in Ontario in the last thirty-five years. The purpose of this paper is to identify the Rae review's success factors and to speculate on the lessons to be drawn for future special-purpose policy advisory commissions.

The detailed policy measures recommended by the Rae review have been comprehensively analysed in this journal by David M. Cameron. As Mr. Cameron notes, the Rae review appeared after a decade when "a growing chorus of voices" reflected on the longer-term consequences of declining provincial support for postsecondary education. (1)

We would assess success in terms of the extent to which a commission's recommendations are implemented in a timely way. (2) Mr. Rae tabled his final report on 7 February 2005. On 11 May 2005, the Ontario finance minister tabled a budget that featured "the McGuinty government's Reaching Higher plan for higher education in Ontario." Although the government deferred its decision on tuition policy until the completion of further consultations with stakeholders, the Reaching Higher plan closely followed the Rae recommendations in most areas, including student assistance, operational funding, graduate education, apprenticeship and training, and the creation of a Higher Education Quality Council. It committed double-digit annual expenditure increases to the sector in a budget that saw the expenditures of fifteen ministries cut or held to below inflation. In its impact on public policy, the commission process must be judged a resounding success.

We suggest that success for special-purpose advisory commissions is dependent on environmental variables (such as the state of the economy, the fiscal situation and the political cycle), process variables (such as reporting relationships, characteristics of the commissioners and the approach taken by stakeholders) and the political acuity with which the commission develops a set of recommendations that can command broad public support.

For the purpose of this paper, a special-purpose advisory commission can be considered to be any time-limited independent body created by government in order to provide advice to government. In Ontario, such bodies have been called task forces, commissions, committees and advisory panels. Sometimes these bodies are created by cabinet order, but the more common practice in recent years has been to appoint them by authority of the minister. The Rae review was technically a mandate given to a single person, called the advisor to the premier and the minister of training, colleges and universities, with a seven-person advisory panel to advise the advisor.

Since the 1970s, governments from all three parties in Ontario have established external commissions to advise on ways to bridge the gap between the government's tepid funding for postsecondary education and its ambitions for a high level of student accessibility. Various commissions have recommended stronger planning and coordination, higher government grants, higher or deregulated tuition fees, or--in the extreme--the closure of several universities if this were necessary so that adequate funding could be supplied to the others. Beginning in the 1980s, this picture was complicated by a growing recognition of the contribution of university research to economic development, leading to recommendations that universities with large sponsored research programs should receive enhanced funding or should be permitted to reduce their student enrolments without losing funding. Several reports in the late 1980s and 1990s drew attention to the efficiencies that might be possible if students could transfer more easily from college to university, or vice versa. Other reports pondered how to improve the governance of the postsecondary education system, either through greater centralization or a more vigorous role for boards of governors.

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