The answer in principle is of course not. In practice, not so clear. This is something I talked about back in October 2013, and there are no signs that things are getting better. Alex Marsh makes the same point in the context of the latest budget. This antagonism to ‘unhelpful’ evidence is out there in plain sight for all to see in the UK government’s current attempt to deny academics in receipt of public funding the ability to talk about the policy implications of their work. I talked about this in terms of the misuse of the term ‘public money’ a few weeks ago, but it is also a pretty direct attempt to suppress unhelpful advice. (Note that ministers have the power under this proposed legislation to revoke this ban in individual cases, presumably when evidence is ‘helpful’ - to them.)
Of course we are not talking about a hostility to evidence based policy by everyone on the right on all occasions. In a THE article by Ben Goldacre, where he also highlights the dangers of the government’s proposed legislation, he details the extent to which he is talking to ministers about evidence based policy. But that interest does not seem to extend to big macro decisions. I was reminded in reading this about what I regard as a triumph of evidence based policy making in my own area: the UK Treasury analysis of Euro entry in 2003. (Disclaimer: my little contribution is the fourth one down in the picture of the reports.) Why didn’t this government do something similar for both the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum?
Everytime I mention the 2003 exercise someone responds that it was just a smokescreen for a power play between Brown and Blair. I think this is an overly cynical view, a view that evidence never changes anyone’s mind. Ramsden’s own view is that the civil service, using the evidence, “ultimately persuaded both the Chancellor and in particular the Prime Minister that it wasn't right to join." It was also the right decision. With both recent referendums we have seen proponents of change putting out documents suggesting that change will not be economically damaging, when most evidence shows pretty clearly that it will be. With the EU referendum in particular, would it not have been better if the government had asked the Treasury to do a similar exercise to 2003, using outside experts where appropriate to provide or validate the technical analysis?
Ben Goldacre’s piece reminded me of my own recent place on John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC). From Ben’s tweets I knew that he was not the greatest fan of this government, and in particular their current treatment of junior doctors, so I asked him whether he had received any negative comments from doctors or others about him giving advice to the government. I was not surprised to hear he had not. Who could object to him taking the opportunity to argue for better use of data and trials in medicine and elsewhere with people who just might do something about it?
It is a shame that some people did not take the same view when I agreed to be on the EAC. I would lose credibility as a macroeconomist, I was told. When McDonnell did his U-turn about supporting the fiscal charter, some suggested this reflected badly on me, even though he had turned in the direction I thought was correct! One charge in particular was levelled at the time. We were being used to make the leadership look respectable, but our advice would in practice be ignored. A couple of weeks ago Labour adopted a fiscal rule which is based on my own work with Jonathan Portes, and in particular by a presentation I made to the group. Mariana Mazzucato’s own work has also featured strongly in Labour party speeches, with good reason.
At the end of the day, policy makers need to look at evidence. If they do not we need strong mechanisms that allow them to be confronted by this evidence. Policy makers that make space for evidence and take decisions based on it need to be congratulated for this, rather than being told their efforts were just a smokescreen. They should be congratulated because letting evidence in often involves a risk: not just to the policy maker’s priors or preferences but also for scrutiny of past actions. Equally we should regard policymakers who knowingly ignore evidence with great suspicion, and those that try to deliberately keep evidence out of the public domain should be condemned.