Friday, 7 May 2010

We need more public agreement and disagreement

Nat O'Connor:An article in the Irish Examiner presents the recent encounter between the Secretary-general of the Department of Finance (Kevin Cardiff) and the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, on the subject of available economic expertise and advice.

"Quizzed about the department’s performance during the current economic crisis, Mr Cardiff acknowledged that it needed to be more open to a wider range of advice than in the past."

"Conceding the department did not have enough expertise among its staff, Mr Cardiff nevertheless said it received expertise assistance from the National Treasury Management Agency, the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator, as well as Merrill Lynch and Rothschilds."

I hope the above list is an example of the narrow range of advisors that the Department intends to broaden out from. In fairness, I don't think that well-evidenced reports or submissions are dismissed out of hand by Finance, regardless of their source. But the methods that are used in business, economics and finance are ultimately social scientific methods. They are built upon a set of philosophical or ideological assumptions; even when these are part of statistical models and must be identified from the exclusion of 'externalities' that are difficult to measure. Hence, there is real value in seeking out and listening to different interpretations of the same factual information, as different assumptions can lead to radically different conclusions. It would be useful for the Department to continue to publish a list of who it goes to for advice, or even to institute a semi-permanent panel for this purpose.

Our decision-makers may well listen to a wide range of advice from different sides in private, but they should be more confident about publicly agreeing and disagreeing with specific ideas. Currently, it seems to be politically impossible for policians to agree in case it undermines the competition between their respective political parties. Instead, alternative perspectives are more likely to be dismissed out of hand with a refusal to engage with evidence or argument. Likewise, even the rationale and evidence underpinning official decisions are rarely given in public, in case it provides ammunition to rivals.

Ideally, our politicians and other senior policy-makers would be obliged to publish (or at least publicly explain and justify) the arguments and evidence for major decisions. The public debate on the issues should also allow room for dissenting minority opinions and alternative perspectives that were heard, even if ultimately rejected. We have a problem that public disagreement is seen as 'disloyal' and a threat to the public's confidence in Government decisions. On the contrary, the public might have much more faith that the State can deal with current crises if more information on decisions was forthcoming.

For example, Alan Dukes, now chair of Anglo Irish Bank, has stated that keeping the bank open remains the best option for taxpayers, based on calculations available (e.g. on RTÉ News). I heard him give the explanation on radio that they commissioned a range of studies and keeping the bank open was better than closing it quickly, for fear of losing more of the €70 billion or so that is owned to Anglo. It was much more convincing to hear him give some of the detail and rationale for the decision, yet the detailed studies are not available and even the level of explanation he gave was after some questionning. Why not have more faith in the public's intelligence and give a clear rationale for decisions from the outset? And if civil society counters that with better evidence, all the better for the quality of decisions made on behalf of the public.

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