Participants at a workshop organized in December 2008 by the PRI noted a number of challenges in setting and implementing a research agenda on sustainable development. One of the most important is Canada’s very nature, characterized by a federal system and strong regional differences. Then there is the complexity of sustainable development itself. Its intricate dynamics (complex concept, multiple stakeholders, cross-cutting implications, lack of public education, etc.) necessitate a detailed approach without losing sight of the bigger picture. Leadership is also a critical dimension. A number of participants emphasized that senior-level champions can have a powerful influence, but also that leadership can be exercised at all levels within an organization, and argued that those who are conscious of the need for change have a responsibility to initiate action within their own sphere of influence. Another challenge is horizontal co-ordination across the federal government: sustainable development is inherently horizontal in nature and requires cross-cutting approaches, but the government has historically had difficulty managing these. Related challenges identified by participants included the importance of ongoing communications and the need to improve performance in implementation.
Additional observations that emerged from the discussion included the following:
- Legislation is beginning to incorporate sustainable development, but in many circumstances it is still treated as an isolated concept. Integrating sustainable development into government requires a shift in the institutional culture.
- It is important to link the short, the medium and the long term when addressing sustainability issues.
- To further the practice of sustainable development the federal government can look to improve capacity building through education and the creation and maintenance of relations with other groups, including those outside of government and with the general public. It is important to ask: “What is the appropriate role for government in encouraging greater public understanding of key sustainability problems?”
- It is essential to put sustainable development principles into the mainstream of everyday work practices and to develop a strong sustainable development policy narrative.
One specific suggestion that received general support was the idea of creating mechanisms within the federal system for sharing sustainable development policy-related research and experience. There was a belief that knowledge and innovative practices were being developed, but typically remained isolated from the mainstream. A regular series of seminars and/or practitioners’ workshops, as well as an electronic link or newsletter, were suggested as ways to enhance exchange and institutional learning.
With respect to international experience, participants noted that it is very important to understand differences in the concrete circumstances in each country, and not to try to reproduce practices mechanically. Participants were interested in the experience of other jurisdictions in (i) promoting more sustainable forms of production and consumption (e.g. marketplace rules that incorporate environmental values; public debate over appropriate consumption); (ii) the British experience with Public Service Agreements as a model of an accountability mechanism for integrating sustainable development goals in planning processes; (iii) developing projects that could inform the upcoming review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act; and (iv) any techniques that measure the effectiveness of sustainable development projects. They encouraged the PRI not to limit itself to environmental examples when reviewing sustainable development governance challenges, stressed the possibility of focusing projects at the local or regional level, and saw opportunities to influence the long-term implementation of the Federal Sustainable Development Act.
Participants expressed general support for all the projects proposed but also recognized that the PRI would need to focus its research agenda. For its part, the PRI committed to pursuing discussions with its federal partners to develop a forward-looking research agenda that best serves the horizontal and medium-term policy needs of the federal government.