Dr. Daniel Béland
Canada Research Chair in Public Policy
In a sense, public policy is the point where government action directly touches people. Policy is about what education and health care is available and how much we will pay for it. Policy determines when we can retire, and what kind of government pension we can expect.
Public policy is an important tool to improve the lives of citizens or make their lives more difficult. Daniel Béland wants to understand the minds of the people who make it.
“I want to study how do policy makers understand the world, how they understand existing policies, how they evaluate them, and how their ideas about what’s good policy change over time,” Béland says.
Béland is looking at how these ideas affect how countries ensure services are delivered equitably to all citizens.
The first is Canada’s controversial federal equalization policy where poorer provinces receive unconditional grants from the federal government’s general revenues. The reasoning is that all Canadians should have access to the same basic level of services from their government while paying similar tax levels. However, equalization has often become a political football as various provinces vie for a greater share of the pie.
With political scientist André Lecours at the University of Ottawa, Béland is comparing Canada’s equalization policy to other countries including Australia, which has an equalization program, and the United States, which does not.
In collaboration with Alex Waddan at the University of Leicester, Béland is also looking at the evolution of three U.S. social policy areas under the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations. These are the politics of social assistance, Medicare, which provides health care insurance for the elderly and the disabled, and Social Security, the main U.S. federal pension plan.
For the equalization project, Béland is using spending data and government documents to establish the framework for these studies. He is also using information gathered from in-depth interviews conducted within the countries he is researching. These interviews with experts and public officials in Canada, Australia, and the United States help provide a closer look at equalization and social policy changes.
Already, Béland has found that Australia has lessons for the Canadian government to learn. Australia has a nonpartisan, transparent, and autonomous commission of experts, which makes the government less vulnerable to criticism. These experts create proposals for equalization based on fiscal and social needs of the states. The Canadian model only considers fiscal needs.
Likewise, Béland observes that Canada’s equalization policy has lessons for the United States. In the U.S., there is no stand-alone equalization program, which encourages members of Congress from poorer states to find other ways to funnel money to their respective geographic areas. Although the Americans could learn from Canada’s equalization program, Béland doubts they want to because of the different political dynamic in Canada and the United States.
Béland is also investigating why different dynamics exist in the American political system, hoping to shed light on how major policy change was possible in the fields of welfare and health care while federal pension reform failed.
Béland hopes his research will get people – including government decision makers – to think about not just how public policy works, but also why their underlying ideas and preconceptions cause policies to evolve the way they do.
Better understanding of how and why public policy develops and changes over time can help guide decisions that make government fairer, more accountable, and more effective.