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Mar 29, 2019

Committing to Action: Key Takeaways

March 29, 2019

Today’s major social policy issues – from homelessness to early childhood development – rely on evidence-informed policies and practices to maximize impact. This much is already accepted by policymakers, practitioners and funders.

The current challenge is how to move from talking about using evidence to guide policy and practice, to actually doing it consistently – and well. In recent months, Mowat NFP, along with a number of partner organizations, has tackled this question in a major international conference held in Regina, two context-setting reports leading up to the conference, and a follow-up convening event in Toronto.

The results of this project, along with comprehensive case studies analyzing promising examples, are presented in detail in a new report, Committing to Action: Next Steps for Canada’s Evidence Ecosystem. Below we present the key takeaways from this work.

The current challenge is how to move from talking about using evidence to guide policy and practice, to actually doing it consistently – and well.

Challenges and Promising Practices

If everyone agrees that placing social policy on an evidence-informed footing is so important, why does movement in this direction seem so slow? Our research found a number of key challenges, grouped under five major considerations. At the same time, experience from the UK, the US, and Canada highlights a number of promising practices that show how to overcome these challenges.

More detail is provided in the full report.

How to acquire the resources, human capital and organizational infrastructure required to create high-quality evidence?

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Key challenges

  • Aligning efforts against standards or hierarchies of evidence
  • Engaging end users in research design
  • Generating evidence that can meaningfully inform policymaking processes and service delivery
  • Building shared data infrastructure
  • Developing frontline technical expertise

Promising practices

  • Sharing and linking data for maximum impact
  • Using thought leadership organizations as intermediaries to build capacity for generating evidence
  • Assessing the suitability of existing standards or hierarchies of evidence
  • Creating space for different “ways of knowing” to account for different cultural and knowledge traditions
  • Drawing upon the lived experience of beneficiaries to ensure evidence is relevant, reflects their cultural wisdom, and is used effectively
  • Building community-driven, Nation-based data governance when handling First Nations data, to respect First Nations data sovereignty

How to ensure that evidence is accessible, understandable and useful to stakeholders?

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Key challenges

  • Distilling complex data into action-oriented findings
  • Engaging end users in knowledge translation processes

Promising practices

  • Validating that the evidence produced is accessible to users
  • Using advocates and champions within existing networks to communicate and translate evidence
  • Working to the scale and capacity of the evidence institution

How to facilitate links to the policymaking process and promoting uptake of evidence?

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Key challenges

  • Identifying appropriate incentives
  • Creating feedback loops for policy development processes
  • Building government capacity to utilize evidence

Promising practices

  • Sustaining meaningful engagement and fostering trusting relationships with policymakers
  • Bridging to the policy process
  • Tapping into technical expertise to help policymakers build capacity and fill gaps

What are the best funding models to invest in capacity building, expand use of evidence and scale up promising practices?

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Key challenges

  • Sustaining and diversifying funding sources
  • Linking emerging non-traditional funding models, like social finance, to existing organizations
  • Facilitating readiness of non-profit organizations for outcomes-based funding arrangements

Promising practices

  • Embedding evidence requirements into government funding processes
  • Matching the funding committed to evidence institutions with the intended outcomes of those institutions
  • Exploring long-term funding models for evidence institutions
  • Using evidence to drive outcomes-based funding

How to best facilitate innovation and experimentation in the use of evidence?

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Key challenges

  • Funding innovative and experimental approaches
  • Constraining legislative and regulatory frameworks

Promising practices

  • Introducing public service experimentation directives
  • Engaging UK intermediary organizations with experience as “incubators” of new What Works Centres to serve a similar role in Canada


Our research underscores that strengthening Canada’s evidence ecosystem is an undertaking both ambitious and timely. Achieving this will require action by, and meaningful collaboration between, federal and provincial governments, philanthropic funders/research councils, social sector umbrella and intermediary organizations, and individual service delivery organizations. Relationships, trust, and meaningful engagement are a foundational element of any such action.

Based on our research, we recommend a set of actions for each of these stakeholders to move Canada forward in transforming its evidence ecosystem.


  • Test the What Works Centre model with a Canadian evidence institution linked to the What Works Network
  • Allocate dedicated funding to strengthening Canada’s evidence ecosystem
  • Introduce enabling legislation to facilitate evidence-based policymaking at the federal and provincial level
  • Create data liaisons/teams within government departments to work with social sector organizations on data-sharing and capacity building

Philanthropic Funders/Research Councils

  • Create an incubator to build evidence capacity among social sector organizations and government departments
  • Scale up incentives for academics to embed knowledge translation activities as part of their research with support from evidence institutions/incubators
  • Increase evaluation budgets in existing grants for social sector organizations to assist with capacity building and technical assistance
  • Pilot grant programs for social sector organizations to engage end users/beneficiaries in research design, data collection and analysis
  • Support ‘vertical’ leadership development in the sector

Social Sector Umbrella and Intermediary Organizations

  • Work at the sub-sector level to align against a shared standard of evidence, where possible
  • Provide more intentional support for convening, capacity building, technical advice, and sharing promising practices at the sector and sub-sector level

Social Sector Organizations

  • Develop an “evidence strategy” for the social sector at the organizational and sub-sector level

The Way Forward

The decisions made by social sector organizations, funders and policymakers can have a profound and lasting impact on people’s lives and the communities they live in. It is incumbent on all stakeholders to ensure these decisions are the best that they can be. Committing to action towards a stronger evidence ecosystem in Canada is the next step forward.



Lisa Lalande
Joanne Cave
Adam Jog

Release Date

March 29, 2019

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