Elections – time for policies to be deposited in advance?

By Grant Jacobs 15/01/2012 10

Some time last year I asked what scientists might want from the political parties.

A few days ago Jennifer Nickel drew my attention to an article on idealog, which calls for ’an independent body to cost, and analyse, the policy platforms of parties at the start of the election cycle.’

This is suggestion is in similar vein to my suggestion of NZ Science Party and the advisory groups present in the English system. For science policy, the English have the Science Advisory Council; over organisations cover various areas of medicine and so on.

One thought I shared privately at that time was that it might help if the political parties standing for election were obliged to deposit key policies* at some set time ahead of the election, say 6 weeks before election day. The aim would be to give sufficient time that the policies could be throughly examined and to encourage that election ‘debate’ be over the understanding of the policies.

It would hopefully also encourage policies to be based on substance.

Currently we see parties offer promises; they’re even called that. Politicians try out-compete each other over these promises, but they’re a bit meaningless unless you can deconstruct them.

Call me a cynic, but you’d swear some election promises are withheld as long as possible, not only to try trump their opposition late in the election cycle, but perhaps also so that they might not be examined too closely before election day!

Sound examination of policy takes time. Enabling time for those with appropriate expertise to dig in an examine what is being offered and raise in public any issues with the offering might encourage the run up to elections to be based more on substance and less on showmanship.

I don’t doubt that this solution is idealistic, but the issue is real enough.


* Health, Education, etc.

Other articles on Code for life:

Especially for sunny days

What do scientists want from politicians?

When is a scientific paper political campaigning?

Homeopathy — practical remedies to address it?

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

Aww, crap.

10 Responses to “Elections – time for policies to be deposited in advance?”

  • The solution may be idealistic, but I doubt that any of our current politicians would think it realistic!

    I agree completely with you, and I think many others would do so as well.

    Many people I spoke to near the election had decided on their vote prior to the RWC starting. They seemed to agree that the last minute promises of political parties are grandstanding and have very little to do with future policy. To persuade these people to vote for them, politicians need to allow time for analysis and following the implications.

  • It’s an idealistic solution that needs to be implemented though. As Stuart says though it’s unlikely to find favour with the people who’s policies will be cricitcally assessed.

    Then again, I’m not sure it should be funded by government though. To be accepted by the general public, it would need to be seen as comlpetely seperate. Ideally, it would need to be funded from small contributions from the general public (corporate donations would be a tad tricky as well I imagine).

    Personally, I’d like it to go a step further. Take the charter school idea (not that I’m for them), it’d be grand to get the policies like that from government, do some research and lay out before the policy is implemented, what conditions would be neccesary for a trial to be valid and what constitutes a success. And then track the trial. All done independently.

    All comes back to the how to fund/run such an enterprise.

  • […] “I doubt that any of our current politicians would think it realistic!”

    It is possible – it’s just they’d object!

    It seems to me that anything presented last-minute is most likely to be playing for the short-term. Complaints about not be able to present policies earlier might leave some wondering if the parties really have long-term plans. You’d think if you had long-term plans, depositing policies would largely be a matter of a writer preparing the material for a wider audience then releasing them.

  • Ben,

    I’d have thought it’d come back to making the political parties do it! Some kind of obligation would have to be in place, perhaps an addition to, or modification of, whatever bill (or whatnot) covers the elections, etc. (Getting that in would be another challenge, you’d suspect…)

    I would like that they parties carry the onus of presenting a case for the policy, though. Y’know: you make the claim, you back it with an argument supporting it.

    You’ve a point about tracking new policies in a trial phrase, where appropriate. It’d be nice to seeing more tracking of policy success as part of laying out a new policy.

  • I imagine to actually get them to do it, you’d have to create an atmosphere where they look really bad for not doing it. At the very least we’d need a referendum or something. And some sort of media campaign.

    The problem I see with the parties doing it, is that they can then only present favourable supporting evidence, which is why I would want an independent body of some sort. Like your Science party, but not actually in parliament.

    If you could manage to get sufficient non-sensationalized access to the electorate and build up a good base of respect, I think it could be a significant force for good.

  • Is there really a need for such things?
    First, the system of making the government accounts (and hence how much money is available) is now transparent and well advanced. The major political parties generally know how much scope they have to spend. The old days- like the 1989 election when the Labour Govt said they had a 1.8bn surplus, that was actually a 2bn deficit when National took over, is now (one hopes, a thing of the past).

    We saw this in the 2008 election. Spending plans were announced up to the point when the Global Financial Crisis hit, and then both parties backed off new spending initiatives. Sometimes decisions have to be made fast. The government insurance program for financial institutions in 2008 was rushed, expedient and somewhat necessary. (I wouldn’t though have extended it to finance companies).

    That then brings up a different issue. Plans, programs and initiatives may need significant changes upon events like the GFC or earthquakes. Which might make nailing down costings much more elusive.

    The other issue is also that coalition governments are now the norm. Identifying the joint effect of policies shaped by several parties- the horse trading and compromises therein- might also inflate the challenge.

  • I imagine any analysis of a policy will have a financial component but I’m more interested in whether the policies proposed will actually do what they say they will.
    An easy example would be asset sales – partially billed as an economic necessity to enable them to perform at similar levels to private firms then we get told they are doing better than private firms. The example used in the idealog article was the Greens 100,000 new jobs claim – was it plausible?

    If investing a large amount of money was going to definitely/probably create 100,000 jobs, I’d like to factor that in to my decisions. If it’s not and can be shown to be excessive hyperbole by an independent body (rather than an opposition MP calling it rubbish) then I’d like to be able to factor that in as well.

    I’ve got no problems with suddenly saying right, global economic conditions have changed, we haven’t got the money to spend. It’s long term policy formation. We’re unlikely to have a global crisis in education which means that all of a sudden the government of the day wouldn’t be able to alter the way the teachers assess their students.

    Costs for disasters, I don’t think anyone would begrudge that. Again it’s not the money though, it’s whether what is being proposed for the use of money is sensible/plausible. I wouldn’t have wanted any response to Christchurch to have to undergo this sort of audit, that would have been just plain silly. When you’re factoring in large scale rebuilds to next years budget though, it would be nice to see an analysis of whether the suggested plan is sensible.

    Coalitions would make it difficult yes. I would see it more as a general competency test though. If the policy one party is suggesting is sane and based on reasonable assumption + evidence then I would be happier voting for them. They might have to change things once they get in but at least there would be a base level of competency that I could be assured of.

    I’m not saying any of this would be easy. I imagine it would be quite difficult. Important though and something I would probably be willing to devote time to.

  • I imagine to actually get them to do it, you’d have to create an atmosphere where they look really bad for not doing it.

    That too :-) Having got it, you’d then want it locked-in in some way (e.g. a bill, etc.)

    The problem I see with the parties doing it, is that they can then only present favourable supporting evidence,

    Sure they’ll present the evidence for their policy as favouring it (they can hardly do otherwise), but what I’m wanting here is that they present an argument for their case not empty promises. You want the election debates to be about the substance within the policies, not ‘empty promises’. What you’d hope for is that in time, the nature of policies presented changes, so that they do the research first. If over time they get knocked back on investigation of the policies, you’d hope parties realise that they have to present something substantive. The way to show something is substantive is to show what backs it.

    The issue is akin to sometimes seen in discussion with natural remedy folk who ask others to disprove their statement, rather than them prove it and both parties look at the evidence they presented.

    Furthermore, advisory services by their nature probably can’t be called to actually make a call on the policy itself – that’d be for media, politicians and the public to do. What the advisory services would likely be limited to is to present the background information, i.e. their job is to inform, not decide.

    which is why I would want an independent body of some sort. Like your Science party, but not actually in parliament.

    The NZ Science Party concept (and it was just a concept) was a little (well, a lot perhaps) unusual in that the idea wasn’t to vote on issues within the house, as such, but to present the background information directly into the debates so that this information had to be considered. It was basically a way to get an advisory service via the public voting for a minor party who would then act as the advisory service, if that makes sense. (You could, of course, do this in more conventional ways if you could convince the leading party to create appropriate advisory services.)

  • Chthoniid,

    I presume you’re replying to Ben. (?)

    My own interest wasn’t with costings, but with the substance (or lack of it) behind policies and with bringing the background information direct to all – public, media and politicians, e.g. by filing public reports.

    One thought though – I suspect in most cases when “decisions have to be made fast”, the underlying factor is well-known. That’s a different scene to, say, different to trying to figure out what backs, etc., a particular education policy (or whatever).

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