Friday, February 08, 2013

Samara on parliament, continued

I'm very grateful to Alison Loat of Samara for a long and thoughtful comment my post of yesterday about their latest report.  Her entire response follows.

Thank you for reading and writing on Samara’s last report.  I’m always glad when people read and talk about our work, even if they don’t like it! 
I’m writing in hopes you can both acknowledge and correct errors in the post.  In particular: Samara is not a foundation.  We are a charitable organization.  These are two different legal structures with different purposes. 
 Samara’s annual spend is about $700,000 and we have a national mandate.  While this is still real money, it’s notable that we are one of the smaller organizations doing the sort of work we do (e.g. we’re significantly smaller than nearly every nationally-known think tank and other civically-minded organizations such as the Historica-Dominion Institute or Maytree).   So to characterize us as having “tons of money” requires clarification and context.
 “Funding half the political scientists in the country.”  We do share our work and data with political scientists, graduate and undergraduate students at about 15 universities (there are about 25-30 academics involved; far from half of the country’s stock – although we welcome hearing from any others who are interested).  We do this because our goal is to advance greater understanding of and participation in our democratic system, and universities are one place where this can happen.  Our reports are on syllabuses, our data have been used by academics to advance their own research and teaching, and a few graduate students are building on our findings in their own dissertations.  We are also working on a book with UBC Press and many of our academic collaborators are involved. Most would say these are good things!

[CM: Indeed they are!]
We do provide small stipends from time-to-time to professors or research assistants to help us with our work (e.g., coding of data).  This helps ensure we are methodologically sound. Most think tanks work closely with the academy in different ways (e.g., IRPP, CD Howe); this is not unusual. It is, however, very different from “funding” them.
We also hire an outside public opinion research firm as we do not have this expertise in house.  Again, this is normal practice for many firms and organizations.
 The absence of discussion on accountability: Accountability is a theme Samara has raised numerous times, including in our MP exit interview reports, in regular op-eds and blogs and in many media interviews.  Perhaps we should have placed greater emphasis on it in this report; however, as you likely read, we are hosting a month-long series called “Redesigning Parliament” where contributors, including MPs and others, are asked to suggest ways that Parliament could be made more relevant to the public.  You can follow that project here and you will see discussion of restoring greater accountability.  As well, we’re inviting additional submissions and there is open commenting available, so please feel free to add anything you’d like.
While accountability is certainly central, it’s not always easily understood, particularly for people who aren’t political scientist or experts on Parliament. As such, we do provide space for discussion on other ways that Parliament can be made more relevant, as, in our views, there are many other small, easily-implementable ideas that are also worthy of discussion and may ultimately help get more people interested in the very important topic of our Parliament and democratic life. 
Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment on Samara’s work.