Making Policy Better Series: Are independent evaluation offices the answer?

Date: 
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - 16:30

This was the final seminar in the Making Policy Better series organised by the Institute for Government, in partnership with the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and NESTA, and in association with the Alliance for Useful Evidence.  This series followed up key recommendations in the IfG report Making Policy Better.

Speaker:

  • Dr Coen Teulings, Director, Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB).  The CPB, an independent body of the Dutch government, analyses the effects of current and future government policies. Its analyses play a key role in the Dutch policy debate.

Discussants:

  • Robert Chote, Director, Office for Budget Responsibility.  The OBR was established by the Coalition Government in 2010 to provide independent fiscal forecasts. Robert was previously director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
     
  • Dr. Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, Education Endowment Fund. The EEF is a charity established by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust in 2011 after they were successful in a bid to manage a £ 125m grant from the Department for Education to support and evaluate projects to raise the achievements of the most disadvantaged students in the most challenging schools.
  • Gareth Davies, Executive Director, Strategy and Civil Society, Cabinet Office.  Gareth is working with the Cabinet Secretary on a potential “What Works” Institute for the UK government.

Chair:

  • Jonathan Portes, Director, National Institute for Economic and Social Research

Coen Teulings explained that despite its name, the CPB does not actually do any planning, rather it combines the functions of the Office for Budget responsibility, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the national Institute for Economic and Social research with a broad remit, from its independent macro forecasting to evaluations of government and opposition parties’ policies. Formally, the CPB is a part of the Economics Ministry – and the director and 100-150 staff are civil servants. The long history profile and reputation of the CPB precludes any political interference in its pronouncements, despite its lack of formal independence.

One of the very different roles of the CPB compared to the OBR was its evaluations of the platforms of parties prior to elections. That determines the election timetable and almost all parties submit their proposals. CPB can also assess opposition policies at other times. That process of evaluation helps parties to improve the technicalities of their policies, increases transparency for voters as policies are presented on a comparable basis and aids subsequent coalition negotiations.

There were some unintended consequences of the CPB model: a bias towards proposals that could be evaluated and a bias towards the short-term because of its focus on one electoral cycle. He concluded by re-iterating that fiscal watchdog must observe the demarcation between the world of political argument and technical analysis – “convincing voters is not our job. We provide arguments. What voters decide to do with those arguments is their job”.

Robert Chote noted that there were some big differences between the OBR and the CPB. Parliament had specifically excluded it from looking at alternative policies when it was set up. New bodies needed more formal entrenched independence than more established ones. There was no one-size-fits-all model for fiscal watchdogs – the role of such a body depended on what problem it was set up to address, and what other institutions already existed – there was no point duplicating the IFS, for example. One of the great advantages of the OBR was that it has an entitlement to information. Transparency is one of the most important prerequisites for an effective, independent fiscal council; transparency is needed both of the published research and of the research process – “we have to show our workings”. Working on opposition policies could cement a reputation for even-handedness – as it did at IFS. But a comprehensive role would require a very different resourcing model.

Kevan Collins gave an overview of the EEF’s activities and main interests. He saw three major lessons from the CPB: that closeness to government means a trade-off between access to information and a reputation for independence; that there had to be a willingness to provide enough time for analysts to evaluate policies; and third, the importance of the demarcation between politicians and experts/practitioners. As well as help policy makers, it was as, if not more, important to equip teachers with knowledge and professionalism in order to restore the initiative to teachers

Gareth Davies began by noting that the CPB was a very different model to anything in the UK. He was looking at the possibility of what Jeremy Heywood had termed a “NICE for social policy”. It was a question of supply and demand. Research has to be generated, communicated and properly embedded in the decision-making process right from the initial policy design. But it also needed to fit with localism. Gareth favoured publishing as much raw data as possible. Gareth stressed that it is important that ‘What Works’ institutes are outside Whitehall and sector-led, building on the example of the Education Endowment Fund as a good example. An institute, whatever form it takes, would need to have strong leadership in order to raise its profile and to bring together the research, policy and political communities.

View Coen Teulings presentation

Listen to 'Are independent evaluation offices the answer?' recording (MP3)

William Knighton

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