Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Potent principles for influencing public policy

Harvey Weingarten of HEQCO shares his lessons learned over 30 years in higher education.


Oh, sure, evidence is important in forming public policy, but it represents “no more than 50 percent of the game,” said Harvey Weingarten in a presentation this past Monday at the 2012 Symposium of the Ontario Research Chairs in Public Policy, hosted by York University on behalf of the Council of Ontario Universities.

In a frank, no-nonsense talk, Dr. Weingarten reminded audience members – many of whom are engaged in some way in public policy research – that public policies are based on “stories, anecdotes, stereotypes, intuition, ideologies, personal experiences as much as they are on evidence.” Some people may think that is terrible, he said, “but everything we know from cognitive psychology reminds us that this is the way that everyone makes decisions. It’s nothing special about the government.”

Dr. Weingarten is president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years in academia, initially as a psychology professor and then working his way up the administrative ladder – first at McMaster University, where he rose to the rank of vice-president, academic, and then the University of Calgary, where he served for nine years as president.

Continuing with his refreshingly blunt remarks, Dr. Weingarten said that even when “the best research” is done and presents a “compelling evidentiary base for moving in a particular direction,” that research and that evidence still need to be packaged and communicated in a manner that is accessible to people in government and in a way that they find palatable and can work with.

“That skill set of making research and evidence accessible to government is a very different skill set than that of actually doing the research,” he said, “and we don’t pay enough attention to it.” This other skill set is largely the domain of marketers and communicators, “and we need more of them to help us out.”

Another of Dr. Weingarten’s principles of public policy is the glaringly self-evident one that governments make policies based on political considerations. “That’s why they’re called politicians, and to expect a politician not to make a political decision is like asking a physicist to violate the laws of thermodynamics. It just doesn’t happen.”

This tendency to make political decisions is exacerbated, he said, by the growing centralization of decision-making in the prime minister’s or the premier’s office and away from bureaucrats.

“I actually have some sympathy for politicians making politically driven decisions. Politicians do something very difficult – every three to five years they stand up in front of a group of people and ask, do you want me to keep my job?” As a thought experiment, he said, “Ask yourself how the behaviour of professors would change if they did not have tenure and their continued appointment at a university was based on a vote of their students every three to five years?”

Having said all that, Dr. Weingarten noted that the situation for those trying to influence public policy is “not terrible. Our job as researchers is how to figure out how to incorporate our evidence and research findings into the political dynamic that exists. That’s not going away. To suggest otherwise is naive. Some people will regard this as a sellout. It’s not a sellout; it’s smart, realistic and strategic.”

A third principle is that public policies have long gestation periods – “you don’t get policy made quickly.” But, on the other hand, he said, “you should actually be quite fearful of policies that are made quickly in government, because governments make policies quickly either when there is insufficient consultation or they’re in the middle of an election frenzy. Neither of those situations necessarily leads to the best outcomes.”

A final principle is that governments today can’t make bold or innovative policy, as much as they would like to. “To be bold, to be innovative, to experiment, necessarily means that there will be some failures. And the political process today is highly intolerant of any failure – the auditor general’s all over you, the opposition is all over you, the media are all over you. So governments necessarily have to take small, increment steps in a particular direction.”

So, Dr. Weingarten asked, how do researchers and institutions of public higher education behave in an environment like this, “given that our task is to take the good research we do, and the findings we make, and to feed them into a government so they can make the best policies they can?”

He listed five lessons:

  1. Governments are thinking about themselves. So if you want to influence government, “use their language, solve their problems, write things in ways that they can understand.” Because “if they don’t see themselves, their problems, their challenges in your research, they have other things to worry about.” As a corollary to that, Dr. Weingarten suggests that postsecondary education institutions should “get some of the people in our sector to work in government and vice versa.”
  2. Consistency of message at both the institutional and the system level is critical. “When governments hear different messages from the same people, they learn quickly to either totally ignore you or to do what they do very well: divide and conquer. They cherry-pick what they want and don’t listen to the things they don’t want.”
  3. As important as the research community is, “governments tend to form policy based on what the [college and university] presidents tell them. … It’s not that researchers don’t talk to politicians and people in the civil service, but the people who carry the message about public higher education to governments are the presidents.” If the presidents aren’t talking about what you’re talking about, he counseled, “it’s not going to go anywhere. You are as well advised to try to indoctrinate the president into the right message as you are to indoctrinate the politicians.”
  4. You can’t rely on the media to deliver the message to government. “You have to deliver the message. Influencing the government is all about the relationships you have with them – very human relationships with individuals – and it is a full-contact sport.” And finally:
  5. If you want to influence government on policy, you have to have some “skin” in the game. “The reason for that is quite simple: when you leave that room, there are 25 other people standing in line asking for something from that minister. What differentiates you from those other 25 people is the fact that you may have shown a sufficient commitment to something that you already have taken the heat to reallocate some of your resources or finances in advance of the government. In my experience, putting skin in the game is one of the most influential things you can do influence government.”
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thomas Ryan / March 10, 2012 at 12:44

    The problem remains quite simple. We hand complex research to government that has wanting backgrounds in research or the content area that the research addresses. There is a fundamental communication void between the producer of the research and the consumer (government). Now add to the mix a government sponsored agency that is fighting to stay funded and we have a recipe for dysfunction as funding drips into the hands of applicants who seem to be able to deliver what the government needs.