Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

From Fellegi to Fonberg: Canada's Policy Capacity Groundhog Day?

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

From Fellegi to Fonberg: Canada's Policy Capacity Groundhog Day?

Article excerpt


After Canada committed to the 2016 Paris climate agreement, the federal and provincial governments announced the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. This broad governance document outlined a renewed long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gases, though there were a number of significant policy-level challenges (e.g., developing a carbon pricing system). A similarly ambitious domestic approach to climate change was undertaken following the 1996 Kyoto climate change agreement, but this largely failed. These shortcomings, past and present, can be attributed in part to policy capacity deficits (Howlett 2009). While there are many examples from other fields, the 1996 and 2016 time posts are timely because they also correspond to two significant Government of Canada commissions tasked with understanding and bolstering policy capacity.

Under the Chretien government, the Deputy Minister Task Force on "Strengthening our Policy Capacity" led by Ivan Fellegi challenged departments to respond to the new public management reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. Included in the Task Force's 1996 recommendations was the need for more specialized policy analysis skills, horizontal policy coordination, and greater public participation in the policy process (Howlett and Well-stead 2012). This initiative led to a number of tangible outcomes: namely, policy training programs and the creation of the Policy Research Initiative. (1) Concern about policy capacity also garnered interest from provincial governments (in particular Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta) who commissioned policy capacity studies (Riddell 2007; Howlett and Wellstead 2012). Parallel to this interest, there was considerable output by the Canadian public administration research community. However, the uptake of this scholarship by government agencies has been very limited.

Some 20 years later, under the Harper government, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Janice Charette, charged former Deputy Minister of Defense Robert Fonberg to examine issues of policy capacity deficits. Fonberg's conclusions echoed Fellegi, stating "that the policy function must be bolstered so that policy analysts could speak truth to power through evidence-based research" (Shepherd and Stoney 2018: 77). Will this signal a renewed interest in policy capacity research by the next generation of public administration scholars? Although interest in policy capacity by governments has waxed and waned over the past two decades, there have been a number of noteworthy contributions to the scholarship in Canada and elsewhere to build on.

In this note, a brief overview of the definitions of policy capacity is followed by reflections on major Canadian contributions. A bibliometric analysis situates the Canadian research within the larger policy capacity field and suggests areas for further inquiry and ultimately greater uptake by government organizations. In particular, a multi-level policy capacity framework expands the potential for future policy capacity research. Finally, lessons from "design thinking" approaches found in New Zealand's "Policy Project" and Canada's "Experimentation Works" may pave the way for more integration of policy capacity research into public administration practice.

Defining policy capacity and major Canadian contributions

There are a number of competing definitions, but policy capacity can broadly be defined as covering a wide range of factors associated with the government's arrangements to review, formulate and implement policies within its jurisdiction. It also includes "the nature and quality of the resources available for these purposes--whether in the public service or beyond--and the practices and procedures by which these resources are mobilized and used" (Fellegi 1996: 6). The ability to anticipate and influence change, make informed, intelligent decisions, develop programs to implement policy, attract and absorb resources, manage resources, and evaluate current activities to guide future action is also an often cited definition (Honadle 1981). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.