Because it’s 2019: Checking in on Gender Budgeting in Canada

The swearing-in ceremony for Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet, Rideau Hall, November 4, 2015. Adam Scotti photo

As our readers know, fiscal policy is the MRI of any government’s principles and priorities, which makes the budgeting process the place where the rubber meets the road on issues of equality. Canada introduced Gender-Based Analysis in 1995 and the Trudeau government has doubled down on the process, an undertaking lauded by both the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development but which could benefit from stronger performance incentives and results measurement. 

Helaina Gaspard and Emily Woolner

Following the Liberal victory in the 2015 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a strong message by establishing Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet. Since then, the federal government has been very vocal in its commitment to “embed feminism in all aspects of government work.” 

The Liberal victory in 2015 was strongly affected by the support of female voters. According to Elections Canada, over nine million women voted in the 2015 federal election, and 42 per cent of those women voted Liberal, as opposed to 25 per cent Conservative and 23 per cent NDP. Certainly, above and beyond the policy considerations, the government’s commitment to gender equality is a political pitch to retain those crucial Liberal voters.  

A notable example is the implementation of ‘Gender-Based Analysis Plus’ (GBA+), an analytical tool designed to assess how government policies, programs, and legislation impact diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people. Although it has been used at the federal level since the mid-1990s, the government has expanded the scope and effect of this program in recent years. Since 2015, Status of Women Canada (SWC), the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), and the Privy Council Office (PCO) have shared responsibility for integrating GBA+ into government processes. Since 2018, GBA+ has become the guiding framework for gender budgeting in Canada. 

Budget 2019 included an entire chapter dedicated to GBA+ analysis, with commitments and investments to narrow gaps in areas such as wages and labour-force participation between men and women. The government can be applauded for making a clear political commitment to change through the adoption of frameworks, strategies and reporting requirements. But how will the government measure the connection between its GBA+ strategies and results over time? In its current form, the GBA+ strategy requires alignment to investments, programs and policies to help to trace, for instance, its potential impact on narrowing the wage gap and equalizing labour force participation.  

While gender budgeting is a stated policy goal of the current government, what does it mean in practice? How do Canada’s practices on GBA+ compare to those in other countries? Does the current GBA+ structure enable government and citizens to track results over time?

The IMF’s 2017 survey on gender budgeting among G7 countries found that statements on gender budgeting impact assessments alone do not imply outcomes: it is “not whether an initiative is labeled as ‘gender budgeting’ but whether fiscal policies and public financial management (PFM) practices and tools are formulated and implemented with a view to promoting and achieving gender equality objectives, and allocating adequate resources for achieving them.” 

Canada is recognized in the IMF report as having implemented gender budget statements and gender impact assessments, as well as having partially applied relevant gender performance indicators, parliamentary control and oversight measures, and gender audits. 

Similarly, a 2018 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report applauded the Canadian government’s tangible progress in various institutions, policies, and accountability structures to promote gender mainstreaming in government activities. The creation of the department of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), the addition of GBA+ assessments attached to budget proposals, and the government’s Gender Results Framework, were among the accomplishments listed. 

But what do these assessments really mean? Is GBA+ working in Canada in practice by changing behaviour and influencing decisions to change results over time? Or, is Canada resting on political commitments without the requisite reporting system to link investments to outcomes over the medium- and long-terms? 

In 2015, in his fall reports completed before the election of the Trudeau government that October, Canada’s Auditor General (AG) reported that significant improvements were needed to implement and monitor the effectiveness of GBA+ in the government. Despite the promotion of GBA+ by Privy Council, Treasury Board and Status of Women, these efforts had not translated into concrete action on the part of departments and agencies. The challenge, it appears, is the translation of stated commitments into practice. 

In response, the newly elected government developed an Action Plan on Gender-based Analysis (2016-2020) to support the full implementation of GBA+ across federal departments and agencies.  

Interestingly, this plan focuses on encouraging better behaviour without incentivizing an outcome. Public servants in executive positions manage a variety of competing issues and perspectives from equity to official languages, as well as their own policy portfolios and legally-defined financial reporting requirements. The current parameters for GBA+ analysis are compelling at first glance but may be insufficient to have a real policy impact beyond a change in rhetoric. For instance, the Government of Canada’s Gender Results Framework remains quite vague. Aside from listing a few key objectives for gender equality (e.g. “Equal and full participation in the economy”) and showcasing some recent government initiatives (e.g. the Canada child benefit), it offers virtually no explanation as to how government policies, initiatives, and investments are connected to measurable results. One can argue that it’s nearly impossible to define causality on social policies and programs, but performance budgeting never hurts. Linking investments in policies and programs to desired outcomes is more likely to generate targets and plans to achieve goals. As it stands, there is no clear way of understanding the influence or impact of Canada’s GBA+ commitments without an evaluation framework that’s connected to budgets and policies. 

International peers outside of the G7 have lessons for Canada to help it enhance the application of GBA+ as more than a policy statement, but an integral component of its budget plans and performance assessments.

Consider Austria, an early adopter of gender budgeting, and a globally recognized leader in the area with its outcome-oriented approach to gender budgeting. All federal ministries and national bodies in Austria are required to submit gender equality objectives and devise appropriate outputs and indicators in preparation for the annual budget. Austria also incorporates gender equality evaluations into impact assessments, performance reports, and into the purview of the Austrian Court of Audit. By connecting spending to measurable and relevant outcomes, the OECD has said, the Austrian approach is a “leading international practice” in gender budgeting.  Canada could emulate this practice by integrating gender budgeting into a performance management framework. To do this, the federal government could develop and align equality targets to resource-allocation decisions for priorities in the Gender Results Framework. This could enhance political and administrative transparency for resources and for results. 

Progress can also be made at the local level. India and Mexico, for example, have extended efforts to subnational jurisdictions, such as states and cities. In India, the government has developed gender budget statements using analytical matrices for gender budgeting, which ministries and departments use to design policies and request funding. This is arguably a more effective approach than the gender budget statement used in Canada, which is more akin to a mission statement. India has also institutionalized a Gender Budget Secretariat into its Ministry of Finance and has created Gender Budgeting Cells (GBC) in different sectoral ministries. These GBCs are governed by a charter established by the Ministry of Finance and are responsible for reviewing departmental programs and conducting performance audits, organizing training and workshops, and disseminating information and best practices. The states of Karnataka and Kerala have integrated similar measures into their respective state machineries. 

In addition to increasing funding for women—particularly in the health sector—and improving monitoring and implementation mechanisms at the national level, Mexico City has launched measures relating to employment, social services, and safe urban transportation for women. Indeed, it is sometimes more practical to focus on specific policy sectors in order to achieve meaningful gender-equality results, as evidenced by the case of Rwanda. Rwanda began gender budgeting with four pilot programs in the ministries of education, health, agriculture, and infrastructure, before expanding its practices to national and subnational governments. So too in Canada, an active strategy on a smaller number of critical policies, well-executed with provincial/territorial and municipal partners, could be more impactful than a passive response across the federal government. 

When compared to other jurisdictions, Canada’s approach to GBA+ is directionally sound but weak in operationalization. Looking to the cases highlighted above, there are a number of practices and lessons the next government may wish to adopt if it is serious about aligning resources to outcomes on gender-related matters. The key practices include: 

1) Emphasize the importance of the issue by requiring (not requesting) that analysis aligned to outcomes be undertaken when submitting budget proposals (as in Austria).

2) Define the purpose and goals of GBA+ for Canada in concrete terms, with measurable metrics against which policy proposals can be tested (as in India). 

3) Demonstrate progress by focusing and targeting initial efforts on GBA+ analysis to specific departments and issues. Instead of trying to revolutionize an entire system at once, work incrementally to integrate the analysis first in departments and agencies that stand to have the most impact (as in Rwanda).

Canada can be credited with its commitment to gender budgeting.  It now has an opportunity to link that commitment into measurable results.  

Helaina Gaspard is director, governance & institutions, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD) at the University of Ottawa. Emily Woolner is a research assistant at the IFSD. This piece is an update of an article published by IFSD in May, 2019.