Impact and Innovation Unit Annual Report 2020-2021

Masked girl holding a small Canada flag with a coronavirus molecule in the background, an astronaut, and small photo of a farm

1. Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic shaped and led the Impact and Innovation Unit’s (IIU) work through the 2020-21 fiscal year.

In March 2020, the IIU shifted much of its efforts to support the COVID-19 pandemic response by establishing an internationally unique model of applied behavioural science and policy research.

It also re-assigned some of its staff and leadership team to help the Privy Council Office stand-up the COVID-19 Secretariat to support the Cabinet Committee on the Federal Response to COVID-19 and directly support pandemic response efforts within the Health Portfolio (Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada).

The IIU team also continued to support partner organizations navigating Challenge programs through the rapidly changing pandemic landscape, by keeping existing challenges on track and supporting the development of new ones.

2020-21 was the most challenging, but perhaps most ambitious and rewarding year in the IIU’s short history to date. Through intense personal sacrifice, members of the IIU responded to a critical need for our country by helping improve Canada’s pandemic response. This report attempts to capture these efforts and the impact of this work.

2. About the Impact and Innovation Unit

The IIU leads Impact Canada, a Cabinet-approved, whole of government framework for scaling-up and mainstreaming outcomes-based policy/program methods (e.g., challenges, pay for results and behavioural science), incentivizing new multi-sectoral partnership models, and developing impact measurement tools.

Since 2017, the IIU has experienced rapid growth with 28 active or completed outcomes-based funding projects worth over $725 million1 - spanning economic, environmental and social policy domains. It also designed and completed a significant portfolio of behavioural science projects and research, mainly focused on informing the government’s COVID response.

Even though the IIU significantly shifted its work in March 2020 to respond to COVID-19, it was able to draw on its core operating principles to define and shape its work. Namely:

  • Using data-driven approaches grounded in an understanding of how people behave in real-world contexts to improve public policy decision-making;

  • Achieving greater value-for-money through efficient and effective programs using flexible rules and rigorous program development approaches to refocus resources;

  • Developing world-leading communications, engagement, and partnership strategies;

  • Addressing critical human resource skills gaps and building organizational capacity in emerging disciplines; and

  • Generating sustainable solutions at scale that measurably improve people’s lives compared to conventional ways of doing things.

3. Pandemic Response: Translating Evidence to Impact

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IIU assessed that it would last a minimum of two years, with likely significant consequences echoing long afterwards. Given its mandate to bring forward evidence-based solutions to help address top government priorities, the IIU set to work to re-focus on this effort over the medium term.

Recognizing that human behaviour was at the core of the pandemic response, the IIU undertook advanced policy research resulting in a world-leading behavioural science program that helped inform the Government’s policy, communication and program efforts (i.e., adherence to public health measures, vaccination acceptance and uptake, borders, misinformation and disinformation, etc.).

The IIU also began to consider how to position and adapt its other tools and approaches, like Challenges, to support economic recovery efforts, and its Fellowship program to build greater capacity in the Public Service with advanced skills and data analysis capabilities in key health portfolio areas.

Behavioural Science

What is Behavioural Science?

Behavioural Science (BeSci) is a multidisciplinary approach to the study of human behaviour and decision-making, combining the findings and methods from psychology, neuroscience, and other social sciences.

The IIU deepened and broadened its behavioural science practice considerably in 2020-21, leveraging its behavioural scientists and practitioners (housed centrally in the IIU and cross-departmentally as Impact Canada Fellows) to inform the design and implementation of priority programs, services, and initiatives.

Over the course 2020-21, the IIU established a novel Behavioural Science applied research architecture to support the COVID-19 response. This resulted in building the most in-depth, behaviourally-based COVID-19 data repository globally, with potential to apply this approach in other priority areas going forward.

Even in the midst of a crisis, testing and experimentation remained an integral component of the IIU’s work. Behavioural Science methods included conducting high-quality research to understand behaviour, using a variety of rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental approaches to test - and scale - effective solutions.

This took shape via three key initiatives, with insights, data, and policy advice adapted to various contexts and audiences (e.g. federal government, provinces, territories, local public health units, and international organizations) to inform decision-making related to the Government’s comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic in close to real-time.

1. Longitudinal Monitoring

Four masked people standing in front of a wall

The COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring Study (COSMO Canada) is a nationwide tracking study that monitors the evolving knowledge, risk perceptions, and behaviours related to COVID-19 across a cohort of 2,000+ Canadians. Launched in April 2020 the COSMO Canada dataset is the Government of Canada’s most comprehensive longitudinal resource to inform the response to COVID-19 with 13 waves of data collection up to the end of 2020-21 (and counting 15 by August 2021).

Using advanced statistical methods and approaches, the study’s longitudinal design allowed for deeper understanding of how attitudes and intentions shifted over time in a highly complex and dynamic pandemic environment. This led to gaining deep insights of the behavioural profiles of study participants to better understand the potential for vaccine acceptance and uptake, as well as monitoring shifting risk perceptions and mental health impacts related to COVID-19 over time.

Example of Impact:
Findings from COSMO Canada have served as an ‘advanced warning system’, able to predict issues well before they emerged as problems requiring immediate attention. For instance, signals and trends in that data detected indicators of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the population when vaccines were still in development.

This enabled IIU Behavioural Scientists to proactively begin researching the factors that underscore - and interventions that can help mitigate - apprehension against vaccination in advance of roll-out. The IIU also helped translate these findings into concrete recommendations to inform decision-making and promote taking action in these areas.

2. Rapid Online Studies and Experiments

A masked man standing in front of an office building

Our online experimentation platform enables ‘deep-dive’ explorations of critical public health behaviours, and testing public health messaging using experimental and quasi-experimental designs. Studies to date have collected data from tens of thousands of Canadians - identifying factors such as high-needs population segments, best-performing messaging strategies, and policy intervention opportunities to measurably drive vaccine intentions.

Example of Impact:
A series of experiments have examined the barriers and drivers of vaccine acceptance, and tested various behaviourally-informed communications strategies to promote confidence and uptake.

Results have underscored the benefit of developing and delivering digestible and easy-to-understand information about the ‘behind the scenes’ work that the Government undertakes to ensure any vaccines that come to market are safe, effective and of high quality. This informational video is an example a behaviourally-informed principle known as ‘operational transparency’ in action in COVID-19 communications.

3. In-Field Research and Experiments

A hand picking a pepper at a grocery store

Partnerships with essential service providers enable the design, implementation, and evaluation of behaviourally-informed interventions that encourage the adoption and maintenance of key health and safety behaviours (like physical distancing) in real-world contexts. These unique in-field testing opportunities will inform policies and programming to keep Canadian consumers, travellers, and frontline workers safer.

Example of Impact:
In partnership with a national grocery chain, the IIU launched a project to apply behavioural science to the experiences of shopping and working in grocery stores during the COVID 19 pandemic. Through this unique in-field study, researchers are identifying and testing opportunities for innovation to improve the physical and mental health of consumers and frontline employees.

The IIU’s Behavioural Science and Policy teams initiatives formed a significant component of the Government of Canada’s pandemic response in 2020-21, which will continue through the next year. It also marked the most comprehensive acceleration and application of behavioural science to policy, programs, and communications in real terms since the IIU was founded. This effort - which was acknowledged by winning an important Public Service of Canada award and gaining high-profile media attention - included producing and providing foundational evidence through hundreds of presentations, key documents, and publications to help improve Canada’s COVID-19 response across multiple domains to a wide variety of Canadian and international audiences and stakeholders. The IIU has also committed to sharing its findings with the Canadian public by making its knowledge products available online.

Applying BeSci to the COVID-19 Response

IIU's BeSci, Policy, and Public Engagement teams continue to provide advisory support on priority COVID-19 policies, interventions, and communication campaigns to help maximize the accuracy and effectiveness of the federal pandemic response.

View a timeline of the activities that have been carried out to date


What are Challenges?

Challenges are an emerging program methodology designed to crowd-in innovative ideas and solutions from a wide variety of actors and sources. Challenges use incentives (both financial and non-financial), to encourage participants to tackle problems where solutions are not apparent, or current responses are not achieving the desired results.

In implementing a diverse portfolio of Challenges since 2017, Impact Canada has helped prove out this method across various social, economic, and environmental domains.

As might be imagined, COVID-19 caused significant disruptions to Challenges that were on course or in development prior to the onset of the pandemic. Access to lab and testing facilities, travel limitations, and other consequences of adhering to important public health measures greatly affected the trajectory of a number of Impact Canada’s portfolio of projects - in some cases leading to extended timelines and moving to virtual engagement methods mid-stream.

In spite of these issues, Impact Canada Challenges continued to make progress and new projects were announced or started development throughout 2020-21. For example:

Diverse designers around a table

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation: The first of six Housing Supply Challenges - part of a $300 million Budget 2019 announcement to develop innovative solutions to the barriers that limit the creation of new housing - was launched. The Data Driven Challenge is focusing on empowering data experts and innovators to create data solutions that improve decision-making for housing supply across Canada.

Garbage can filled with food

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada

Announced in Budget 2019, Streams A & B of the $20 million Food Waste Reduction Challenge were launched, focusing on accelerating new business models that can be deployed to reduce food waste, fight climate change, and strengthen our food systems.

astronauts growing a plant on another planet

Canadian Space Agency’s Deep Space Food Challenge

The Canadian Space Agency’s Deep Space Food Challenge, developed in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was launched in this year, seeking to create novel food production technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious, and palatable food outputs for long-duration space missions, and which have potential to benefit people on Earth. The Challenge will be run in conjunction with NASA until its conclusion in 2024, and represents their first international partnership for the NASA Centennial Challenges program.

Drug checking technology

Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge

Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge came to its conclusion by awarding Alexander Boukin and Ari Foreman, inventors of the Scatr Series One, the $1M grand-prize. The Challenge was launched to improve drug checking technology to allow the community of people who use drugs, and those who support them, to make more informed decisions based on the composition of a drug, and to reduce harm. Their device had the greatest potential to be deployed broadly in environments where it is needed (affordable, durable) without sacrificing accuracy, sensitivity or the ability to easily use the device, interpret the results and share data.

Fishing boat

Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency: The Hull Design Efficiency Challenge

The Hull Design Efficiency Challenge focused on fostering boat design innovation to promote economic growth and protect the environment - saw a grand prize of $500,000 awarded to a winning boat builder. Based on the recommendation from the selection jury, TriNav Marine Design from St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador is now working towards building and field testing a prototype of their winning design. Their hull design will maximize energy efficiency, lower operational costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Drugs and devices for treating diabetes

Public Health Agency of Canada: Diabetes Challenge Prize

Announced in Budget 2021, $10 million was provided over five years for a new Diabetes Challenge Prize. This initiative will help surface novel approaches to diabetes prevention and promote the development and testing of new solutions to reduce the risks associated with Type 2 diabetes.

The Impact Canada team and its partner federal organizations continued to develop other Challenges in preparation for launch in 2021-22, as well as support current Challenges set to conclude in the coming year.

Impact Canada also continued to refine its approach to measuring the impact of Challenges, working with Statistics Canada and other partner departments, and completed its Challenge Guide - a practitioner’s guide that aims to provide an understanding of how challenges are currently being designed and implemented in a Canadian government context.

Hands holding the Impact Canada Challenge Guide


What is the Impact Canada Fellowship program?

The Fellowship program was designed to attract external-to-government talent with specialized skills in four discrete disciplines – Behavioural Science, Impact Measurement, Innovative Finance, and Challenge Prizes – with the aim to increase capacity and upskill the existing workforce.

People sitting in an open office

The Impact Canada Fellowship program was a critical tool to help build capacity into the federal Health Portfolio departments to better support the pandemic response by bringing behavioural scientists to support various priorities. It also saw opportunities to develop and implement Challenges in emerging areas - like space-based technologies.

2020-21 also saw the Impact Measurement and Innovative Finance streams wind down, with Fellows successfully exiting the program for other opportunities. While these streams may open again in the future, the IIU decided to prioritize Challenge and Behavioural Science streams over the medium term based on evolving priorities and operational demands.

In 2020-21, the IIU recruited five new Fellows - this included a dedicated cohort of four behavioural science Fellows embedded at Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). The goal in placing Fellows within PHAC was to apply and mainstream their expertise and methodologies and work on some of the most important COVID-19 priorities including the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Division and supporting the Chief Public Health Officer.

In addition to recruiting new Fellows, we also repatriated our existing behavioural science Fellows from across the federal system to work on the rollout of COSMO. A new Challenge Prize Fellow joined the program’s interdisciplinary cohort in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency. This year was a period of growth for the Fellowship program, with more growth anticipated throughout 2021-22.

The Fellowship also saw international interest from other governments who are considering implementing similar innovative staffing programs.

4. Going Forward

The IIU will continue to support the Government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery efforts throughout 2021-2022.

This includes continuing to expand and adapt the IIU’s behavioural science research architecture to respond to emerging issues, like building vaccine acceptance and uptake and better understanding COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation. The IIU will also explore applying these approaches in other policy domains where human behaviour is influential to the achievement of federal policy objectives.

The IIU is also supporting the deepening of behavioural science expertise in partner federal organizations. This includes helping to design and stand-up a new behavioural science Office in the Public Health Agency of Canada, which will work collaboratively with the IIU on top public health priorities going forward. This effort can form a model for how to effectively mainstream evidence-based approaches within federal organizations and could be applied in other policy contexts where understanding human behaviour is essential to the successful design and implementation of policies, programs, and communications efforts.

The IIU will also continue to support its portfolio of Challenges, with many slated to announce winners in 2021-2022 across various domains such as Clean Technology. Other Challenges in development and set to launch in 2021-22 include an international marine plastics challenge announced at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Charlevoix; projects with the Canadian Space Agency; and additional Challenges under the Food Waste and Housing Supply portfolios.

The IIU will also continue to develop applications for Challenges and outcomes-based funding models to support Canada’s economic and societal recovery emerging from the pandemic in the coming years. These approaches could help unlock better ways to address extremely complex societal challenges where no clear solutions exist and where traditional market structures are unlikely to incentivize breakthrough innovations.

The IIU will also continue to invest in its people, and build out its multi-disciplinary team to support top government priorities going forward. While under challenging circumstances, the IIU’s experience has helped demonstrate the value of its mandate to use evidence and outcomes-based approaches to improve outcomes for Canadians.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

© Privy Council Office, 2021
All rights reserved.

All requests for permission to reproduce this document or any part thereof shall be addressed to the Privy Council Office.

ISSN: 2561-9705

Aussi disponible en français sous le titre : Rapport annuel de l’Unité de l’impact et de l’innovation 2020-2021.