Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How can governments raise the quality of public debate in order to achieve worthwhile reforms?

Following from our recent discussions about Bryan Caplan’s book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, Jim said he wanted to ask me what I thought a reform-minded government could do to raise the quality of public debate in order to overcome problems posed by lack of public understanding of economic issues. I suggested that there were not many reform-minded governments around these days, but Jim made it obvious that he did not think that remark was worthy of a response. He said: “I have read a post on your blog about ‘institutionalised transparency’. After I managed to work out that the post had nothing to do with the number of windows in public institutions, I found it quite interesting. So I have got some questions I want to ask you.”

I thought that what Jim had in mind was a casual conversation, but he produced a piece of paper with three questions written on it. “I’m not interested in your top-of the-head comments”, he said, “I want you to give a thoughtful one-page response to these questions on your blog.” Anticipating that I might say that there are better things to do at the seaside on a summer’s day, he added: “Just remember that you used to tell people that you found your work so interesting that you would be willing to do it for nothing!”

Question 1: Why do you think a transparent public inquiry process would raise the quality of public debate, given that the vast amount of policy-related research that is already publicly available has not achieved this?

Answer: The public inquiry process ensures that the results of relevant research are brought to bear at the most appropriate time and in the most appropriate way. The advice resulting from the process is directly relevant to the government’s policy agenda because it is provided in response to questions posed by the government. It comes from an authoritative source - independent of government, political organisations, industry organisations and interest groups - that is required to consider the interests of the whole community, rather than the interests of particular industries or groups. It is produced by competent professionals who are capable of presenting their understanding of the issues involved in a way that can be readily understood by politicians, journalists and interested members of the general public.

Question 2: What are the critical requirements for such an organisation to be effective in raising the level of public debate?

The most critical requirement that has not already been mentioned is transparency. The whole advisory process is open to public scrutiny, not just the questions posed by government and the Commission’s final report. The Commission publishes its preliminary views on the scope of the inquiry, submissions by interested parties are made public, a draft of the Commission’s report is published and responses to the Commission’s report are also made public.

This transparency provides an incentive for all involved in the process to lift their game. When interest groups make submissions to politicians behind closed doors their most influential arguments often emphasise the likely effects of their policy proposals on gullible voters in marginal electorates. When policy issues are exposed to the transparent advisory process, however, interest groups have an incentive to consider whether the views they present are likely to be able to withstand public scrutiny by critical professionals who are interested in the economy-wide effects of policy proposals.

Question 3: Where is the evidence that Australia’s productivity commission has been effective in raising public understanding of economic issues?

The Commission answers this question in its annual reports ( see particularly, pages 43 – 48 of the 2007-08 annual report). The fact that media coverage of the Commission’s reports is fairly extensive (p 48) suggests that it capable of having a positive effect on public understanding of issues.

However, I must come back to the point I was alluding to when Jim raised this question. The Commission functions most effectively when we have a reform-minded government that is interested in raising the quality of public debate on complex issues.


Anonymous said...

Good answers to good questions! Linking this with your later posts about pessimism ... The feeling of most people is that their voice doesn't count or views get taken into serious consideration. Giving more power to regions and local authorities might be a good solution, but ince they get into power, they want to stay there ... !

Winton Bates said...

Russell: I think you make an important point. You might also be interested in this post if you haven't already seen it: http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2008/04/would-more-involvement-in-political.html

Unfortunately, I think we lose a lot of the potential benefits of federalism in Australia because the allocation of responsibilities between federal, state and local levels has become fuzzy. Politicians at each level seem to spend a lot of time blaming the other levels for failure to resolve problems. Voters don't know who to hold accountable.