On Conflict of Interest in Public Policy

In academia, disclosing information related to potential conflicts of the authors in written work is fairly well accepted practice, particularly sources of funding along with any paid or unpaid positions with relevant organizations. All reputable journals have rules require that such information must be disclosed in all papers published in the journal itself.

But what about in any official public commentary? What should be disclosed on your website? Your bio? A priori in an interview with a journalist? In a written op-ed? Testimony to public bodies? In any case where you are presenting yourself as an informed and unbiased expert on a topic?

This is such an important question that myself, Melanee Thomas (Ucalgary, Poli Sci), and Kayla Doody (MPP Candidate) have been actively engaging in research in this area. The purpose of our research is to provide a clear framework professional ethical framework to guide all of those engage in policy work. I am disappointed that our research expertise and knowledge has been so far dismissed by some people and entities engaged in public policy commentary who purport to support independent, unbiased, evidence-based, policy relevant research.

Our research has shown us that there are actually some generally understood expectations in this area, expectations that have grown over the last 10 years. First, anyone and everyone who engages in commentary should have a pre-prepared public disclosure statement available for anyone to review and anytime. Second, all media outlets need to require that all policy commentators to publicly and pro-actively disclose any potential conflicts. In interviews this would require a formal statement at the beginning of any interview of the nature “Do you have any conflicts to disclose” and in any written policy commentary would require a written disclosure in the article itself similar to that which occurs for published research. A number of highly reputable media outlets already engage in these activities, including The Conversation.

Further we have found clear guidance from some organizations. The American Economic Association provide members with professional ethical guidance that it is expected that they apply similar principles to op-eds, columns, any testimony, and any interviews with journalists. The University of British Columbia appears to have to the most detailed and comprehensive policies and guidance on this for academics, including covering conflict of community. Government legislation also provides relevant material for our work, further demonstrating that the issue of conflict of interest is well known and the matter of disclosure clearly used as a method for ensuring transparency. Further, academic research has also provided important guidance related to the important of communicating non-financial or community conflict of interest. For example, the need to your involvement in a political party when commenting on policy or activities of said political party.

As Kayla as expertly summarized “Disclosing financial and non-financial conflicts appropriately and accurately raises the standards [for public policy commentary in Canada and]…. allows readers and listeners to confidently and accurately assess the information presented to them.” When policy academic and commentators fail to provide disclosure, it provides readers and listeners a false sense of trust and accuracy of the statements being made. It is long past time to allow this continue and it is time that the policy field is brought in line with other academics and research areas of conflict of interest disclosure and understanding. I would hope that many of our Canadian governing bodies like the Canadian Economics Association, the Canadian Political Science Association, the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration, Institute of Public Administration Canada, Canadian Association of Journalists, and related pay attention to this important issue and incorporate their own rules related to conflict disclosure.