Michael Burke: I’m guessing that Dan O’Brien may not be every reader of this blog’s favourite economic commentator. Just a hunch. But reading a recent piece of his in the Irish Times, reminded me of some of the great works of magical realist literature. Seriously.
In Dan’s piece reviewing the new government’s first 100 days he had this very interesting passage, “There are also doubts about whether it [the government] has the technical capacity to conduct a truly comprehensive spending review. At a recent seminar co-hosted by that [Public Expenditure and Reform] department, a senior official said it was only now developing capacities to carry out cost/benefit analyses. Worse still, he noted this capacity had withered, having once existed at the insistence of the EU when it wanted its structural funds to be properly spent. When asked why the methods used in the past were not simply used again instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, he was silent.”
Now, it’s not altogether surprising that there is no cost/benefit analysis being conducted ahead of government policy decisions, or even as an evaluation once implemented. Clearly, many of the decisions taken would have been avoided had any evaluation of their likely impact taken place, or revered once the damage was clear. Some while ago I was asked to write an article for Public Affairs Ireland in which I argued that An Bord Snip Nua had made no attempt to evaluate the impact of its voluminous recommended cuts. You remember Colm McCarthy’s meisterwerk? The one that said its cuts would eliminate the deficit by 2011. Public Affairs Ireland must have liked the piece so much they held onto it. Never published it. Or made any contact with the author since receiving it.
It would clearly be a public good if the State had some mechanisms to evaluate the impact of its actions, preferably in advance, but ideally both before and after. It would also be helpful if there was analysis of where things went right and when they went wrong, just to try to increase the proportion of the latter.
There used be to evaluations of the National Development Plans coming out of our ears. But that was because the EU insisted on monitoring the impact of its money. The conclusion of the evaluations was extremely positive, estimating an enormous impact from an increase in public investment. Now, there is no plan, no assessment and no investment.
There has been a State-sponsored exercise in forgetting. Because the lessons learnt were that public investment works- generating €2.40 in activity for every €1 invested.
Instead, we have entered a mythical land where history no longer exists, even while a consensus about the past is manufactured. A Latin American terrain of viciously opposed parties who enact exactly the same policies. And where there is a daily barrage f propaganda justifying cuts, yet leading public servants have nothing to say when asked why the evaluation methods of the past were not simply used again. “He was silent”.