Meaningful Measures of Progress

By Kathy Vandergrift on November 16th, 2016 Parliament Hill

From the Catalyst, Winter 2016

Sunny ways are clouded these days.

With the approvals of the Site C Dam and the Petronas liquefied natural gas project in B.C., there are fears that environmental goals are being sacrificed. First Nations’ high hopes for a new relationship are turning into protests and lawsuits as decisions are made about projects on their lands without their consent. Participants in the many promising consultations worry about vague links to outcomes from these processes. While positive, high profile actions continue (particularly in relation to women and diversity), those working for systemic changes, such as electoral reform, are getting impatient.

This is the messy stage in the life cycle of a government. The implementation of election promises may mean difficult choices. The language of trade-offs takes over – between the economy and the environment, arms sales and jobs, ending poverty and balanced budgets.

Beneath the surface politics, we all face a dilemma. The evidence is now clear that a green, inclusive, equitable society can have a healthy economy. But making the transition from the current economy is challenging, and the path is unclear. The transition in Canada is happening in the context of slow growth, which fosters a sense of a zero-sum game. If someone else gains, I must lose. In that context, power struggles replace a focus on how changes could fit together. In biblical terms, one might say that the reality of human frailty and brokenness has muddied the path toward a vision of the Kingdom of God.

The Prime Minister’s mandate letters to his cabinet ministers highlighted the connections between economic, social, and environmental policies. They also emphasized working with other actors. New cabinet committees may foster policy coherence, and the shift to measuring success by outcomes and results is positive.

But how could we measure progress along the way?

The current government seems to be turning to deliverology, a current fad in governance. It is based on measuring specific indicators for selected priorities to show progress. Yet instead of this narrow approach, the government could use an existing system that lies dormant in Canada.

One tool that could help is the principle of progressive realization. This is embedded in the international human rights conventions that Canada has ratified but not implemented domestically. It is designed to allow governments to show progress toward a wide range of specific targets. These targets are integrated within a comprehensive framework that builds on the connections between sustainable environmental, economic, and social goals.

Take the area of children’s rights, for example. Progress toward specific targets to reduce child poverty are integrated with targets to end sexual violence, create healthy environments for children, and improve civil rights, such as considering the voice of young people in decisions that affect them.

Regular reporting would alert us to unintended consequences earlier. Another advantage is the fact that provinces have also ratified these international conventions so they would need to take implementation seriously. Reviews like this, ones that are based on public transparency, put citizens at the center and foster accountability by all levels of government. It could foster what most Canadians want - an end to jurisdictional fights between federal and provincial governments that sacrifice the longer-term public good for short-term political gains.

The concept of progressive realization combines short-term progress with long-term goals. It can help bridge the four-year election cycles with different priorities for every change in government. It has the potential to make systemic changes within the systems of government. It would also give Canada genuine international credibility because we would practice at home what we preach abroad.

If we take transition seriously, civil society groups also have a unique role to play. They can hold governments accountable to big picture goals. They would also serve the public by working together across sectors to identify integrated short-term goals as well as long-term ends. We all need to recognize that making the transition toward a more sustainable and equitable society is a challenge. This will need to be a matter of progressive realization over time.

Kathy Vandergrift is the former chair of CPJ’s Board of Directors. She has worked inside and outside government at municipal and federal levels to advance social justice.