An evolving science of making policy

John Key’s government is experimenting with changes to the way some policy is made. They might just point to a different sort of politics.

Top of the economic policy news last week was Simon Power’s response to the Capital Markets Development Taskforce’s 60 recommendations and high on his list was rejection for now of minority selldowns of state-owned enterprises to citizens to broaden and deepen the too-thin stock exchange — though Key is set to seek endorsement in the 2011 election.

Power endorsed most recommendations. And, though he also mostly said “agree but more work needed”, that is not a copout: the taskforce set most of the “more work” parameters by testing its analysis and proposals with officials and the private sector as it went along.

A parallel is the tax working group. Its brief was to analyse all reform possibilities (it left out “green” taxes). But that group, too, included officials and private sector practitioners and so its proposals, too, had a real-world anchor.

Ministers must bundle up the final tax package, so it will reflect their party preferences. But when Key and Bill English come to seek public acceptance they will be able to present rationales worked up by non-party experts.

Nick Smith likes that process. He is mulling over a taskforce to explore the potential for “green-tech” (also known as “clean-tech” or “green growth”, though these are not interchangeable terms).

Despite Tim Groser’s initial green growth excitement when Conservation Minister and despite an expanding National BlueGreen group of MPs, the Beehive’s top brass have instead talked up mining in conservation areas and irrigated farming.

But now the word is that Stephen Tindall’s business group pushing “clean-tech” has started to get a hearing among some ministers: in a country that trades on “100 per cent pure” there is, after all, some logic in seeing if money can be made from green activities.

A taskforce of scientists, businesspeople and officials could be a useful exploratory vehicle.

A possible complication is that such a group might draw private sector energy away from another experiment, Smith’s Land and Water Forum.

In mid-2009 Smith asked that forum, which comprises all groups with an interest in water, from conservationists to dairy farmers, to try to nut out a broad consensus on which he could base policy.

Consensus is a very big ask, given fundamentally conflicting economic, environmental and Maori spiritual claims. But there is growing reason to think it might just work. If it does and if the cabinet sticks to its word and translates the consensus into policy, governments over a decade or more would think twice before making major change.

That would be a ground-breaking innovation in policymaking.

But there’s more.

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s determined chief scientific adviser, has asked 10 of the country’s “social scientists” to pull together international academic research, data and clinical expertise on the transition from child to adult.

Several besides Sir Peter himself have international reputations. They have been told to think outside the box, as the tax working group was. The experiment has already attracted some international attention. Key is enthusiastic.

It sounds like a nice waffle: fine theory for academic conferences.

But Sir Peter is an entrepreneur, not a waffler. He wants science established as a core ingredient in all policy, as biological and physical science is in some areas of policy, for example, biosecurity and climate. In social policy there is wide room for dogma and ideology: national education standards came out of National’s election policy; academic research supplied justification, not the impetus.

The child-to-adult-transition group aims to emulate the biosecurity approach and make its report a strong platform for policy.

The policy would still need political and public acceptance and to pass fiscal and ethical tests. And ideology cannot be expunged from the cabinet room (where military training for errant teenagers is cutting-edge thinking).

But if Sir Peter’s group produces a compelling report, which is then used as the basis for action, that could set a precedent for requiring policy to pass tests of good data and world-class research as well as those other usual tests.

Policy analysts will object that they work off the best evidence and give free and frank advice to their ideology-prone ministers. The difference is that an outside group with rather better brains than the average policy analyst’s owes no deference to politicians, who can therefore dismiss its work less easily. Criticisms of Key-English timidity compared with the tax group illustrates this.

Still, these are experiments. They do fit the more differentiated way of doing things the rising generation expects and in that sense may be an organic evolution of our policy process. Over the next 12 months or so we will learn whether old politics trumps these new organisms.