Federation of Canadian Municipalities
The best way to kill an idea is to study it to death. Both “A Call to Action” and “A National Affordable Housing Strategy” took only a few months, but represented excellent, original research...
Homelessness is a national disaster, declared the Big Cities Mayor’s Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in November 1998.
By late 1998, reports of overloaded shelters, tragic deaths on cold winter nights and news of the “hidden homeless” of children and families were starting to permeate the public consciousness. This bad news came at a time when the country was riding the wave of one of the most prolonged periods of economic prosperity in its history. Clearly not everyone was benefiting — thus, the declaration.
This article reviews the initiatives undertaken by the FCM following the declaration and the personal lessons learned along the way. It is a reflection on a success story of rapid research followed by effective formulation and communication of policy recommendations and the eventual establishment of new programming by the federal government.
In late 1998, the FCM moved quickly to develop a plan of action that was innovative and inclusive. The National Housing Policy Options Team (NHPOT), composed of a group of mayors, councillors and senior staff from communities across Canada, was formed to guide the process. Research and data gathering to give a picture of the situation was the logical first step for the Team.
The information-gathering process was multidimensional. The National Symposium on Homelessness and Housing helped initially to define the parameters of the problem.
Community input was then solicited from FCM members across Canada including information from the array of on-the-ground groups and individuals assisting Canada’s homeless. Data from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and from Statistics Canada provided an empirical basis for the research. Throughout these various information-gathering activities, the FCM served as the home base — working with all the partners to develop a sound evidence base for developing policy options quickly.
This work culminated only six months after the declaration of a national disaster with the publication of “A Call to Action” in June 1999 (www.fcm.ca/PDFs/Housing/nhpoeng.pdf). The report forcefully presented the nature and scale of the problem across Canada. “A Call to Action” found that:
- Between 1990 and 1995 the number of households in Canada paying more that 50 percent of their income on rent increased by 43 percent;
- In larger urban centres there were at least 96,000 households on assisted housing waiting lists;
- Emergency shelter use was increasing significantly in many cities; and
- Canada would require 450,000 rental-housing units to meet projected demand in the decade following the report.
The report was unanimously accepted by the FCM membership at the June 1999 Annual Conference and served as the basis for consultations with government toward implementing solutions.
The work of the team did not stop with research. Local governments, large and small, used the data collected for “A Call to Action” to lobby MPs, discuss the issue with local media and ensure that the federal Cabinet was aware of the seriousness of the issue. A submission to the federal budget process from FCM in the fall of 1999 included information from “A Call to Action.”
The federal government’s December 1999 announcement of $783 million in funding for homelessness initiatives was undoubtedly the result of various influences. However, the research and dissemination processes led by the FCM’s NHPOT played a role (we think a particularly persuasive role).
This inspired the FCM to continue its work. Over the spring and summer of 2000, the Federation, working closely with other organizations advocating action on affordable housing, produced “A National Affordable Housing Strategy.” This was followed by a similar dissemination and communications process.
The period between the November 1998 declaration and a year later when the federal government announced new funding was an intense period for those working on the project at the FCM. Lessons were learned which may be of interest to others in the policy community. They include:
Start from the finish: In the case of “A Call to Action,” the goal was to gather the data to support what all of the stakeholders already knew: homelessness was reaching crisis proportions. Effective strategic policy research, like a good meeting, starts with a vision of what you think you want to conclude.
Your research is your armour: When you are taking an unconventional approach to building a research base, it is important to make sure you have the facts straight. The use of front line data from a broad range of stakeholders can be risky and extra care must be taken to ensure it can be substantiated.
The federal government’s December 1999 announcement of $783 million in funding for homelessness initiatives was undoubtedly the result of various influences. However, the research and dissemination processes led by the FCM... played a role (we think a particularly persuasive role).
Policy research doesn’t have to take forever: The best way to kill an idea is to study it to death. Both “A Call to Action” and “A National Affordable Housing Strategy” took only a few months, but represented excellent, original research that was better than anything else in existence.
Lots of cooks in the kitchen are useful …: The FCM’s housing and homelessness research was possible because of the existence of a network of experts across the country who were ready and willing to supply both data and anecdotal evidence that was not available from national-scale data sources. The same network of experts also gave indispensable advice on the policy prescriptions presented. Their reach was critical in convincing city and town councils to fund the work and in communicating results to local policy makers.
…But you need a head chef: The role of key leaders was critical in articulating both a vision and an overall strategy. Champions with the energy and passion to move the project to completion were essential in coordinating the work of the “chefs.”
Moving from research to action: Decision makers don’t have time to read 60-page reports. In the end, condensing hard-won intelligence into two-page briefing notes, one-page press releases and 15-second sound bites on television, made sure the word got out. This project benefited from a cross-Canada network of municipal officials to communicate report findings to the local community. This built a broad range of support for the policy options identified in the report — a key element in getting the ear of decision makers.
The preceding article expresses the opinions of the author, and not necessarily the positions of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities or anyone named. For more information on FCM research and policy on affordable housing and homelessness, see “FCM’s National Strategy on Affordable Housing” on the FCM web site at www.fcm.ca