In my last post I used the example of Brexit to show that politicians, even when their ideas are seen as seriously harmful by most experts, will still find policy entrepreneurs to give them enough information to sound knowledgeable when they appear on the media. But this may be an extreme example of a more general phenomenon, which I would describe as the breakdown of the way expertise is utilised by government: a breakdown of what I call the Knowledge Transmission Mechanism.
It is nothing new, of course. The first example I ever had experience of was as an economist at the Treasury when Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. As far as her new Treasury team were concerned, most Treasury civil servants were not ‘one of us’, and they had little time for their advice. When Treasury economists predicted a recession in 1980, they were ignored. (There was a recession.) As the young Treasury economist I was then, the contrast with the ever curious Denis Healey was quite shocking.
Even back then, Conservative ministers tended to seek advice from City economists rather than academic economists, which may be one reason why the record of Conservative Chancellors in running the economy from Thatcher onward is so much worse than the 13 years of Labour government. Part of the role of right wing think tanks is to hide that fact, which they do very successfully. It is why the 364 academic economists in 1981 who attacked Conservative macro policy are generally thought to have been wrong, when in reality they were broadly right. This was perhaps the beginning of the Conservative party’s disdain of experts who interfered with their ideological projects.
The use of partisan think tanks and experts by the political right is now well established in both the US and UK. In contrast the last Labour government was much more open in its use of at least economic advice, but its biggest mistake was in ignoring expert advice on Iraq. There may be some on the left that would like to replicate the way the political right works for Labour under its new leadership, by suggesting for example that conventional economists are inherently hostile to its policies.
But this is not how the Knowledge Transmission Mechanism (KTM) is supposed to work. Good ideas and good evidence do not have to come with a left, right or centre political label attached. When I have advised political parties or governments or economic institutions I have not given them advice which is only appropriate if the recipient wears a particular political colour. A good understanding of how the economy works does not require a particular political allegiance.
I wonder how much the trend towards the delegation of decisions to independent bodies, and suggestions to do more of that, is a reaction to this growing politicisation of expert advice. I was listening to an interesting Resolution Foundation podcast based on a new book from Paul Tucker, which was all about the conditions for successful delegation. One of the participants, Kate Barker, gave an example where she thought proposals for delegation went too far: the LSE’s Growth Commission.
I turned quickly to the Growth Commission’s 2017 report to see what Kate had in mind. I suspect it could be this.
“The ultimate objective is a long term industrial strategy that is isolated from political cycles. An independent body should strive to overcome fragmentation across different levels of government.”
Now there may be a case for delegating the implementation of an industrial body to an independent body, just as the implementation of monetary policy is delegated to the Bank in the UK. Just as Chancellors may alter the timing of interest rate changes for political ends, ministers may also skew the distribution of industrial policy to favour some constituencies over others. To a considerable extent this is what the Growth Commission proposes. But I suspect saying that you want industrial policy “isolated from political cycles” portrays an underlying deep discontent with how the Knowledge Transmission Mechanism has broken down.
This is not a post about the merits or otherwise of delegation (on which Paul Tucker has sensible things to say), but an attempt to describe one reason why experts or civil servants may be increasingly inclined to suggest delegation. Put simply, if politicians base policy on an ideology that requires shutting expertise out, independent bodies that let expertise back in become increasingly attractive.