How research and evidence-based analysis can shape Veterans’ public policy

Ottawa, ON - October 29, 2015

This text was authored by Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, and originally published in the November 2015 issue of The Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health.

There is nothing more powerful than freeing the facts. Facts arrived at by rigorous research and evidence-based analysis generate and focus debate. They empower citizens and enhance citizen engagement with government. This combined effect cannot easily be ignored, and it creates the conditions needed to shape public policy.

My time as Veterans Ombudsman coincides with the birth of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR). In fact, the first event that I attended after becoming Veterans Ombudsman on November 11, 2010, was the inaugural Military and Veteran Health Research Forum in Kingston, Ontario, hosted by Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada. At the end of the Forum, the idea of CIMVHR was born. Under the leadership of Dr. Alice Aiken and Dr. Stephanie Belanger in 2010–2011, Forum members quickly began to engage academic research resources across Canada to fill in the national research gaps in relation to the health of Canadian military personnel, Veterans, and their families.

Around the same time, my team and I at the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) decided to adopt a two-step approach to address systemic issues of unfairness to Veterans and their families. The first step involved the research, collection, and publication of a review of the data and information available with respect to a particular systemic issue – including information that is often challenging for someone outside of government to obtain. The second step was the release of a report with recommendations securely anchored by research and evidence-based analysis.

This approach was grounded in the belief that only the facts can cut through the suppositions that often divide Veterans and their families, Veterans’ organizations, other stakeholders, and Veterans Affairs Canada. By initially providing all stakeholders with the same information in a review that the OVO used as its starting point to conduct its analysis and formulate its recommendations in a report, we hoped to educate and create an environment for informed debate. Then, when the report was published, the focus would shift to the analysis and recommendations for improvement because the data had already been presented and discussed.

We first put this model into practice in 2012 in preparation for the parliamentary review of the New Veterans Charter. Before releasing Improving the New Veterans Charter: The Parliamentary Review, we began an extensive research and consultation effort, knowing that we had to present facts to help the various stakeholders find common ground. After the publication of our review in spring 2013, it quickly became the foundation for all analysis and discussion on the subject.

The review was followed in August 2013 by our report Investing in Veterans’ Vocational Training and Improving the New Veterans Charter: The Report in October 2013 with evidence-based recommendations that addressed shortcomings in three New Veterans Charter program areas: financial support, vocational rehabilitation and assistance, and family support. Also, for the first time, our recommendations were supported by an actuarial analysis that compared financial benefits between the Pension Act and the New Veterans Charter and pinpointed exactly how the charter was failing Veterans.

Our efforts and the determination of the Veterans’ community as a whole to have the New Veterans Charter opened up for parliamentary review in its entirety resulted in Government of Canada action in fall 2013 and a full review of the Charter began by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. By making our research public and tying our recommendations to solid evidence-based analysis, we were able to shape public policy.

Three years after we started, the government made substantive changes to the New Veterans Charter that addressed many of our concerns with the adequacy, sufficiency, and accessibility of benefits. Although I am not suggesting that the results are solely because of the work of the OVO – because many other stakeholders were pursuing the same goal – I believe that our work focused the debate and created common ground to allow many voices to work together collaboratively. When stakeholders had the facts and analysis in their hands, they began to develop one shared message, and the discourse began to change. The debate moved from what needed to be done to how the change should be made. No one was quibbling about the facts. (For more details on my experience, please read My Five Years as Veterans Ombudsman: Narrowing the Gap for Veterans and Their Families.)

Today, CIMVHR’s pan-Canadian network of academic partners is in a unique and influential position to have a real and positive effect on the lives of Veterans and their families. The challenge is to conduct more Canadian research and evidence-based analysis on issues of concern for military members, Veterans, and their families. Unfortunately, we often see the results of foreign research and analysis indiscriminately being considered applicable to Canada, but we need to understand the Canadian context to find Canadian solutions for Canadian problems.

In the next three years, my office will be pursuing several initiatives in which research and evidence-based analysis is needed to inform our work. These will include Veterans’ health care needs, Veterans’ family support, Royal Canadian Mounted Police programs and benefits, non-economic compensation for pain and suffering, transition from military to civilian life, and Veteran-centric service delivery. We are more than willing to share our research and evidence-based analysis with you and hope that you are open to a reciprocal relationship of knowledge sharing with us.

From my perspective, CIMVHR has a vital leadership role to play in freeing the facts. It is important that Canada continues to increase its stock of knowledge on Veterans and their families and go beyond to produce new knowledge. In addition, we need to deepen our understanding of the full spectrum of Veterans’ issues to better identify their interrelationships. We can lay the groundwork for the future by building strong, sustainable relationships now.

The importance of our investment in Veterans should never be underestimated. It was one of the main driving forces that re-energized and rebuilt Canadian society after World War II. Many of the social benefits that we take for granted today were influenced by Canadian Veterans’ benefits, including universal health care, vocational retraining, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation housing programs, business development loans, publicly funded legal aid, income support for the needy, and home care. In fact, today, investing in Veterans continues to be a most valuable investment that affects the socio-economic fabric of our workforce and our communities. The more Veterans can transfer their leadership abilities and military-acquired skill sets into civilian occupations and life, the better off we are as a country.

When you consider the role that Veterans’ benefits played after World War II in “dramatically expanding the country’s academic infrastructure,” as noted by Peter Neary, PhD, Chair of the Veterans Affairs Canada Canadian Forces Advisory Council in the publication The Origins and Evolution of Veterans Benefits in Canada 1914-2004, what better way to commemorate the sacrifice of our Veterans than to conduct the research and analysis needed to improve the health, quality of life and care of Veterans and their families.

So I say to you, go for it and continue to free the facts!

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