• Tomlinson, A., Johal, S., Dragicevic, N. (2024) The Role of Standards in Shaping Effective Public Policy. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON

Executive Summary

Policymakers have for decades relied upon a relatively stable set of tools—such as taxation, spending, and regulation—to achieve their objectives. While these tools have served Canadians well, other approaches are also needed to keep pace with rapid societal, technological, and environmental changes. More than ever, policymakers at all levels of government are facing pressure to deliver results quickly, utilize scarce public resources effectively, marshal evidence smartly, and serve and reflect the needs of many diverse groups and individuals.

This paper explores how one underleveraged tool in the policymakers’ toolkit can offer a means of addressing many of the complexities posed by today’s environment, while delivering on the promises of quicker, evidence-based, and consensus-driven solutions. The tool is standards—a trusted and proven instrument that has been quietly and effectively supporting Canadian governments in meeting their objectives for over a century.

Sometimes referred to as “the invisible layer of governance,” the aim of this paper is to bring the use of standards and the benefits they deliver for policymakers, the public, and industry to the foreground.

The paper begins by explaining the typology of standards, the ways in which they are developed, and how they are applied across a range of areas. The second section looks at how standards align with policymakers’ needs and where they add value, as well as examples of how standards are being deployed to tackle key policy priorities. The remaining sections explore how the benefits of standards can be quantified, how standards development is evolving to meet modern needs, and considerations for policymakers seeking to make greater use of this tool in an increasingly complex world.