Evidence-based policy: why is progress so slow and what can be done about it

Here’s a presentation I gave at the anniversary of Australian Policy Online which has been cunningly rebranded under its old acronym as Analysis and Policy Observatory.  I gave a similar one at Kings College London a few weeks previously. Note that some of the slides may seem a little odd. That’s because I typically ‘build’ some of the slides to illustrate a train of reasoning. But I expect you’ll get the hang of it! If you like, you can download the slides from this link and build them while you watch. Some of the ideas presented are set out a two part essay here and here, further explicated here with some further thoughts here.  

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12 Responses to Evidence-based policy: why is progress so slow and what can be done about it

  1. Mike Pepperday says:

    Made me think of Allison’s “Essence of Decision.” What you are after in general terms is organisational structure that aligns individual incentives with policy goals.

    If Amazon and Google can do it, why can’t the government? If Amazon and Google didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be talking about them but what is it about their organisational structures that enables them?

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Mike,

    I think that’s a nice way to put it. I’d add that, while everyone talks about ‘alignment’ of incentives, the way they then talk about it is as if it’s straightforward …

  3. R. N. England says:

    A prime example of failure to adopt evidence-based policy is the NBN fiasco. The original FTP decision was made partly on evidence that the copper connections near the customers’ end were failing (as mine is) because Telstra has fallen drastically behind with maintenance. Now it performs only cheap, temporary fixes, even when called out multiple times. The money is going to the mobile network, where the big profits (from phone-addiction) are. It would even have made sense to allow the copper network to degrade if it were to be replaced by FTP. The money saved on maintenance could have gone into FTP. The FTN policy keeps only the most severely degraded end of the copper network, with all its maintenance nightmares, indefinitely. Land-line customers need to pay more, but that is heresy.

    A major reason why evidence-based policy is not adopted is 2-party politics. Even the good ideas put up by one party must be opposed by the other.

    • R. N.
      There was no Regulatory Impact Statement done re the implementation of the NBN.
      As best as I know there were no publicly available studies done about things like :cost benefit, possible market distortions and likely demand ,re the various approaches that could be taken .

      Its a bit of a stretch to talk about the ‘evidence ‘ behind early decisions about the merits of the available range of options-when none of that evidence was ever subject to a independent public review. It’s also by now obvious that the original estimate for the NBNs total build costs ,and likely return on the investment ,was not looked in the mouth.

      A counter argument is that for the NBN to return even 3% on the government investment , the NBN must charge more than most are prepared to pay and it would have been better ,more efficient , to have a direct open public subsidy paid to installation costs in the regions and left the city’s to the market to sort out.

      As it stands it seems to me that ,eventually much of the NBN investment will provably have to be written off- transferred to our government bottom line- which would allow the NBN to charge bandwidth rates that are more in line with what most people are prepared to pay.

      • R. N. England says:

        Copper is in a death spiral. Telstra’s maintenance level is far below that necessary for it to survive more than a few years. They don’t have anywhere near enough competent people to keep it going. Without FTP, land-line to ordinary families is in a death spiral. Telstra are engineering this because the profits are now in mobile, and when they get nearly everybody onto mobile with its limited total bandwidth, they can start jacking data prices through the roof. Only the rich, and big corporations will be able to afford the amount of data ordinary people could have had with FTP. As Adam Smith noted, profits are highest in those nations going fastest to ruin.

        Here is some evidence for the state of Telstra’s copper network:

        • R.N.
          A collection of photos from a few self selecting individuals is surely not a reliable evidence base?

          I just wish that a proper review based on publicly available evidence ,especially re cost benefit questions, had been done before they stared the whole thing.
          Mind back in 2008 the iPhone was only a year old and nobody could have predicted just how much of a sea change that Phone and it’s emerging competitors represented . And god only knows what communications will be like in ten years from now.

          Meanwhile from the UK :

          Mike McTighe, chairman of Openreach, the arm of BT Group that owns and operates Britain’s broadband and phone networks, said the company was upgrading its FTTN connections with GFAST technology that allowed for “ultrafast” speeds of between 100Mbps and 350Mbps despite the copper wires.

          The company is delivering a mixture of FTTN and FTTP connections, like NBN Co, and Mr McTighe said delivering an all-fibre network across Britain — a fraction of the size of Australia — would have taken up to 20 years to roll out and would have been prohibitively expensive.

          He said the company would move to all FTTP at some undetermined stage in the future, but the ultra-fast speeds those connections delivered were not required and doing the installations now would have been wasteful.

          “We have to make an economic return,” Mr McTighe told the Broadband Futures Conference in Sydney.

          • R. N. England says:

            John R. W.,
            As the copper network degrades, it will increasingly be about reliability, with speed coming second. Part of this is my own personal gripe about having to call my telecommunications retailer every few months to get Telstra to fix my degrading copper connection. Telstra can and do fix it temporarily, and they could fix it properly, but it seems to me that they must have a policy of not fixing it properly. Just jiggle the contact to temporarily rub off the resistive oxide coating, which they know will develop again in a few months when rainwater gets on it again. They seem to be playing a silly game with their customers (to push them onto mobile), and at the same time with retailers (in my case Iprimus) to increase their costs by causing a large volume of labour-intensive communication between retailer and customer. Public utilities with excessive appetites for money are master players at silly games, and poor providers of services. They play them with governments who are supposed to supervise how they operate, and with everybody they do business with. The prize for winning is economic rent in the form of grossly inflated payments to executives. The best-paid executives are the most successful players and inventors of silly games.

            Concealment is very much part of the game. The public or their representatives are not supposed to know what is going on (I admit I’m only guessing at it). Evidence is being obscured in the out-of-control struggle for money. That’s what makes evidence-based policy so difficult to even. formulate.

            • R.N.
              Telstra is a company, not a Public utility, its directors duty is to its shareholders.

              It was the then government that exempted the implementation of the NBN from the requirement to do a Regulatory Impact Statement .

  4. The other day I came across this Pdf of abook :Public Opinion by Walter Lippman.( i am only up to chapter 4).
    None the less it seems , despite being published back in 1922 , still relevant.

  5. rog says:

    Thanks for that Nicholas.

    I like the vascular analogy and, at a grass roots level, can relate to it but feel that the image lacks symmetry without the below ground component. Trees plants and the like need the support of the root system to grow the above ground system and the state of health of the above ground system can reflect what is happening below the surface.

    Continuing with the analogy, dealing with issues at the branch level may not be sufficient to address the root cause.

  6. Nicholas
    Think this leaked cabinet doc re the initial plans for the NBN could be worth a post http://www.abc.net.au/res/sites/news-projects/narrative-cabinet-files/pdf/ebbdf60e-4c08-4ecb-a753-d2f6ea805f43.pdf

    What do you think?

  7. Verona Serum says:

    Lovely just what I was searching for. Thanks
    to the author for taking his clock time on this one.

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