When governments back down from a policy announcement or change it has the media image of the people’s will being brought to bear against an out of touch government; something, perhaps, to applaud. When governments back down from a policy, especially when they did not know they were going against the “public” will, it is not clear that we should celebrate.

The idea that public pressure was able to change a policy that was driven by sound, significant research is a fundamental threat to democracy to the extent to which the research is sound and the public pressure is ephemeral and possible uninformed.

Three reasons stand out from a theoretical point of view for why policy announcements can end up producing enough pressure to force a government retreat:

  1. The policy was not really considered fully and announced without proper research and thought (think the announcement about changing the words to the national anthem). The Prime Minister’s spokesperson even presented the backtrack as a response to listening to Canadians: “We offered to hear from Canadians on this issue and they have already spoken loud and clear” (see story here).
  2. A failure of research. Research was undertaken but either the research was incomplete, misunderstood or did not fully address the issue.
  3. A failure of communication and communication planning. Those responsible for realising the information were unprepared for, the reaction they should have expected.

Examples of the last two are hard to identify because we often do not know how the policy was developed (there is a lack of transparency). It seems reasonable to assume that a health curriculum would not be undertaken without considerable research and consultations but it two short days the Premier reversed the policy.

The Ontario health curriculum, with a revised approach to sexual education, first made the news on April 20, 2010 (reports indicate that the curriculum had been posted on the Ministry website much earlier). News reports identified significant opposition and by April 22, the Premier had decided to withdraw the controversial (sex ed) elements of the curriculum for review. In the intervening period the Minister and the Premier defended the policy.

“Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acted unilaterally in pulling the plug on his government’s new sex-education curriculum after he was blindsided by his own bureaucrats and a backlash from parents and religious groups” (Howlett and Hammer, Globe and Mail, April 22, 2010).

The backlash from parent and religious groups is not really surprising in the abstract – teaching children about sex is inherently going to be problematic for some groups in society and the issue offered plenty of ways to provoke and exaggerate.

In fact, stories about the curriculum referred to the two year process involving stakeholders across the province (including religious groups) which suggests that the policy was neither a surprise or secret (at least to those consulted) nor lightly considered. What is definitely true is that all of the reasons why the curriculum changes emerged out of the consultations never really penetrated into the debate as the Premier and government were on the defensive immediately. Clearly, a communication strategy was either not developed or not implemented.

I am not suggesting that inherently all government decisions are right and democratic (e.g. follow the will of the majority). In some circumstances we know that governments adopt policies which do not have majority support. In addition, there are minorities to protect, there are facts and issues that are highly disputed (e.g. think free trade here), and there are differences of values. There are also times when public debate about a policy could even move public opinion from support of one position to support of another.

But there is something unsettling about two days of bad, “titillating” news coverage undoing a lengthy (perhaps even science-based) approach to curriculum review. We deserve better.

We will probably never know whether this was a policy development failure, a failure to consult or a failure to communicate. It is clear, however, that governments have a responsibility to do a better job of introducing and explaining policy. We may not all agree but retreating from a policy change because you were “blindsided” is unsatisfactory.