Friday, 5 February 2010

Uno duce, una voce

Nat O'Connor: I cannot allow two recent stories in the papers to go by without comment.

Today's Irish Independent reports (in a story about Enda Kenny) that "Brian Cowen's handlers are issuing instructions to the media about what questions the Taoiseach can be asked."

The report goes on to say:
"Mr Cowen is objecting to being questioned about national issues when he travels around the country.

"In an unprecedented move, the Fianna Fail press office yesterday issued a schedule for Mr Cowen's trip to Cork this afternoon with the instruction 'the Taoiseach will only take questions related to his visit to Cork'.

"Mr Cowen's spokesman said the Taoiseach would rather focus on the topics he is dealing with on the trip."

In a democracy, and not only during an unprecedented national crisis, it is the right of citizens and journalists to ask the Taoiseach any question that they believe to be of public interest.

Meanwhile, a controversy rages between the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the ESRI. In particular, the Minister is quoted as saying:

"I do regret that they have been drawn into what is clearly a public relations campaign on behalf of Dublin City Council and Covanta and it is no coincidence that the report was released today and it is simply to undermine Government waste policy,”, and

“Certainly in my time in public life, I’ve never come across anything like this where ESRI is used in that way and I think they departed from their normal standards in that regard,”

It is welcome that the Minister's consultants (Eunomia) should argue with the ESRI about the method used, the data included, etc. That's healthy. Many people on this blog also argue with the ESRI about methods and data.

But for the Minister to accuse the ESRI of public relations campaigning for Dublin City Council and "departure from professional standards" undermines the role of evidence in informing policy-making. That doesn't just undermine the ESRI, it undermines any organisation that presents evidence and reasoned arguments for or against policy, particularly when the issues are complex, and different theories and models can be used.

If the Taoiseach is not to be questionned and the Minister for the Environment is not to be disagreed with, what next? Uno duce, una voce?


Diarmo said...

Scary stuff indeed.

Oliver Vandt said...

The ESRI want the cheapest solution that meets the relevant standards. It's their job to find this and they did their job. Gormley wants the cleanest possible solution. This is his job as leader of the Green Party. It's not his job as the minister of a cash strapped country slashing welfare for the blind, the widowed, the disabled....

Gormley should be honest about this and admit that the minimal cost solution that meets the relevant standards is not his criteria. For him to question anyone else's credibility after his behaviour since the last election is preposterous.

This does not change the fact that the governance of the ESRI is deeply flawed. See the discussion on the previous thread.
What do TASC contributors think about the governance of the ESRI?

Nat O`Connor said...

—Oliver Vandt,
To be honest, I haven't had time to read either the ESRI report or to follow the critique of it. My only concern (above) is that the Minister's argument was not about data or method, but just attacked the ESRI’s reputation when it published a peer reviewed report.

As for the governance of the ESRI, I agree that governance is an important issue. But I also believe that the academic work of the institute is professional and well insulated from interference.

The ESRI explain their governance here, including the fact that “The Institute enjoys full academic independence and is answerable ultimately to its subscribing members, currently over 300 companies and individuals.”

They give more detail in their history section (here) about when they planned “how to retain independence and objectivity; how to focus on issues of national importance as compared to what was readily fundable; and how to ensure that high technical standards and high rates of academic publication continued to be reached while meeting budgetary targets.”

In order to achieve this, “It was decided that it would become normal practice to accept contract work only when the client agreed in advance to its publication. This precluded suppression of unpalatable results and ensured that the ESRI’s work remained publicly available and widely disseminated.” and “New emphasis was placed on the development of multi-annual programmes of research or research centres. They also help [in] ... preserving the Institute’s independence to carry out the research and publish the findings in an objective and impartial way.”

This stuff is all very important. And if reports are going to be side-lined by public remarks that attack reputation rather than substance, then any hope of stronger, evidence-based policy-making will suffer.