Gender-based analysis should open the government’s eyes to the complexity of the lives of each and every one of us, write Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer.

By Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer, June 8, 2018

It’s been just over three months since Ottawa tabled the country’s “first gender budget” and there’s been plenty of debate over such “gender-based analysis” (GBA), the government’s political motives, and the extent to which Ottawa’s gender focus is ultimately about women’s issues.

Answers to these questions are still too early to tell. Post-budget efforts have been focused on adopting “gender-based analysis plus” across departments and in different aspects of program delivery and policy development. It will take time to determine how it’s used by the federal government to inform and shape policy and governance choices.

There are certainly risks. The process may be implemented unevenly. It can be politicized. And there’s a potential it becomes subordinated to the government’s self-professed feminism, which can easily blind them to what their own gender analysis is telling them about the policy impacts on men. That’s the key test and one that the government, so far, is failing, as we’ll show in a moment.

But as a matter of principle GBA shouldn’t be opposed or ridiculed. If the goal is to put humans at the centre of policymaking, it can be an important counterweight to the bureaucratic tendencies to abstraction and technocracy. The challenge is to make sure GBA opens government’s eyes to the complexity of the lives of each and every one of us, or it just becomes an excuse to push a narrow agenda.

What do we mean about putting people at the centre of policy?

Policymakers too often neglect people in their clever models or grand strategies. The role of incentives, the different results the same policy can produce for different people in different circumstances, and difficult-to-measure considerations such as human dignity or social solidarity are hard to take account of when making policy. It’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that governments are not just moving chess pieces on a board; rather they’re taking important decisions that can vitally affect real people who lead unique and complex lives.

Sometimes the result is minor. Government programs are inefficient and resources are wasted. Other times the outcomes can be quite devastating. Think, for instance, of the inattention to the work disincentives of Employment Insurance or social assistance prior to the mid-1990s. These are the risks of policymaking for chess pieces, not humans.

As Steven Hilton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, wrote in his 2016 book More Human:

I now realize why so many policies fail, why so much money is wasted, why so many promises are never delivered, why this happened in our administration – and in every government. It has to do with a mindset, an attitude, an approach in which policy making is much more about theory than practice, where the people making the policy and the people implementing it make no real effort to understand, in detail, the lives of the people whom the policy is for. I have no hesitation in saying…. that the single biggest improvement we could bring to policymaking in government is to make it more human, to put people at the centre of the process.

GBA can in theory challenge this mindset and restore a place for people in public policy. The government’s description of “gender-based analysis plus” certainly holds out this potential. It states:

Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) is the process by which a policy, program, initiative or service can be examined for its impacts on various groups of women and men. GBA+ provides a snapshot that captures the realities of women and men affected by a particular issue at a specific time. This means that analysts, researchers, evaluators and decision makers are able to continually improve their work and attain better results for Canadian men and women by being more responsive to their specific needs and circumstances.

Properly done, GBA could represent a positive, human-centric development. It essentially amounts to greater evidence and empathy. Both are important. It’s up to governments to follow them. But it cannot pick and choose. It must listen to what GBA reveals about the impact of policy on everyone, including men, and not just on favoured groups, such as women, however important those groups may be.

As a matter of principle GBA shouldn’t be opposed or ridiculed. If the goal is to put humans at the centre of policymaking, it can be an important counterweight to the bureaucratic tendencies to abstraction and technocracy

One currently-ignored area ripe for more people-centred analysis, for example, is natural resources and the trade-offs that policymakers are implicitly making between employment and other considerations such as reducing carbon emissions. Proper GBA would reveal that the effects of this policy are relatively minor for women but devastating for men.

Approximately 140,000 people presently work in Alberta’s energy sector and estimates are that more than three quarters are men. Average hourly wages are nearly 50-percent higher than in other parts of the economy. And analysis by University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan shows that these resource jobs have sustained Canada’s middle-class over the past 15 years.

Successive policy choices by the federal and Alberta governments have prioritized environmental considerations over investment and employment. When combined with declining global prices, the result has been significant job losses – more than 50,000 in fact – and only one third are expected to return.

Men have been disproportionately affected, and specific kinds of men in particular. It’s been principally blue-collar men who’ve lost their jobs. One estimate is that the job losses among these workers is nearly five times the losses among the highest-paid workers in the sector. It’s an intuitive finding. Bankers and lawyers in major cities move onto the next deal. Working-class people in rural communities have fewer options and are often forced to uproot their families.

A people-centred GBA could easily have revealed this differential effect on men before these policies were put in place. Maybe the decision would have been made to go ahead regardless, but at least the impact of the decisions would have been known and could have been properly debated. As it is we only know these things after the fact, once the damage is done.

Smarter policy thinking is certainly needed. The rise of populism has been driven in large part by the largely justified perception of working-class people – including both men and women – that policymakers stopped caring about them. Donald Trump’s invocation of the “forgotten men and women” wasn’t mere rhetoric. It was a fair criticism of an increasingly abstract and insular policy process.

The antidote to these political trends and public sentiments is to put people back at the centre of public policy and governance. Ottawa’s focus on gender-based analysis may ultimately fail due to politicization or identity politics or a singular focus on feminism. But for now while pointing out where ministers are falling short, we’re giving the government the benefit of the doubt and hope that it’s ultimately successful. Ottawa needs more people-based analysis where every person counts.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director and Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

(Image credit: Status of Women Canada)