One of the impressions I have of many of the government ministries is that they act on “you say jump, I ask how high” kind of arrangement. We seem to see this particularly strongly in the Ministry of Transport where staff appear to have gone to almost extraordinary lengths in the past to paint projects like the City Rail Link in a bad light while giving uneconomic RoNS projects a free pass, all of which is strongly in line with the positions taken by government ministers. (Note: MoT staff we know you read the blog so if you want to refute this feel free to provide information to the contrary)

So it’s interesting to see this article about a report by the Prime Ministers Chief Science Advisor suggesting a similar thing and recommending there be a similar position to his be created in a number of agencies including in the Ministry of Transport.

In a report on the role of evidence in policy formation and implementation, Gluckman reports a highly variable approach to the use of scientifically rigorous evidence in recommending, implementing and assessing the impacts of new public policy.

In some cases, senior public servants seemed to prefer “to work from their own beliefs or rely on their own experience.”

“At its extreme, I find this deficiency to be unacceptable,” he said, noting concern also about departments that rely “primarily on internal research of questionable quality and/or commissioning external advice that was not scientifically peer-reviewed.”

While there was excellent practice in some parts of the public service, but “some policy practitioners held the view that their primary role was to fulfil ministerial directives, rather than to provide an evidence-informed range of policy options on which Ministers could develop a position.”

“Surprisingly, this was held in some departments that most need to use objective evidence in their day-to-day operation,” Gluckman says.

Without naming names, he recommends the appointment of chief science advisors to the Ministries of Health, Education, Business, Innovation and Employment, Transport, and the Department of Internal Affairs.

It would be interesting to see what Gluckman – or someone in a position to push for evidence based policy – would say about current plans like the RoNS being built despite falling or flat lining vehicle ownership, kilometres travelled, licenses issued and even in many cases daily traffic volumes.

Vehicle ownership

Equally it would be interesting to hear what they have to say about the impacts of current/proposed policies have on other areas like health, the environment or a number of other areas.

Of course this doesn’t mean the government’s policies would change but it would hopefully mean is much better information out in the public domain about the true impacts of the decisions that are made.

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  1. during the late 90s era of “road reform” with Maurice Williamson as Minister of Transport, I recall an MOT representative to the regional working group declaring “we are but the representatives of the government of the day”, this process featured a desire to bring the market to roads, including the full cost of road use, but fell over when an estimate of the range of road user externalities was produced and was too scary to contemplate

    it is ironic that one of the early sticks Brownlee used to poke the CRL was that its fundaments weren’t “evidence based”

    1. No that’s Joyce. It is a standard tactic of his to accuse opponents of committing the sins he is enacting. Especially around economic value. The RoNS are unsupportable and entirely without the kind of study and analysis that has been demanded of the CRL, yet he will stare into any camera and make absurd and outrageous claims about their value. Brownlee is more honest; he says they’re building them because they want to. Which is dumb and circular; but honest.

      1. Yet for multi-modal arterials into growth areas we need a BCR of 4? But they want housing areas as well, in fact putting the economy at risk again? And still build the very ones with less than a BCR of 1 and not reprioritise the existing networks to give other modes a fair go?

  2. I did work for a Ministry (not MoT) for a few years and like all public servants starting out we were told that our primary client was the Minister NOT the public of NZ (as might have been the case before the mid-90’s, before the public sector reforms). Anyway this messaging signalled a major shift at the time. And this obviously creates very real tensions between ideas of provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice and following Ministerial directives. Pragmatically it was all about assembling cases to justify Government stances. The political over the analytical, almost every time. Providing ‘frank and fearless’ advice was interpretated as only intervening in situations where the Minister might fall on his/her butt. So, again, servants to the Man not the people.

  3. For all the dismissal of the Greens as hippy flakes, they are the only party that is mostly committed to evidence-based policy. Not completely committed, as evidenced by their support for totally-evidence-demolished policies around alternative therapies, but much more committed than any other party, by a huge margin. And the policy areas that are massively expensive are the ones where the Greens are best at evidence-based policies. It’s just a shame that they’re still dismissed as flakes, with supporting evidence waved about being those few areas where they aren’t evidence-based.

    As for the ministries doing as the minister commands, is anyone surprised? It’s what happens when the public service becomes a political play-thing rather than being allowed to be the true neutral body that just reports the facts. That this country has been pursuing not-at-all-evidence-based Chicago School policies for three decades doesn’t help anything either. When politics is dominated by an economic nonsense, it’s inevitable that the public service will be captured by nice-sounding bullshit ahead of less-palatable fact.

    1. Mr Clouds, the Greens are a broad church, and there’s room for the alternative therapy lot, and there is room for all the people who think, quite rightly, that alternative therapies are mostly hogwash. But the crazy non-scientists aren’t just a feature of the Greens. Look no further than the Hamilton City councillors and their bad decision on eliminating fluoridation of the water supply. And the country as a whole is pretty daft when it comes to particulate pollution. PM2.5s cause damage at 7 micrograms a cubic metre, yet we haven’t banned woodburners yet. That is madness. i.e. there is a lot more places evidence-based policy should be used.

      In other words I think Peter Gluckman is spot on in his call for other departments to have a chief science advisor. They should be independent too, and not appointed through the reverse meritocracy nepotism that the National Party especially excels in when making appointments to boards and commissions and such.

      1. Greens can either have a place for “alternative therapies as proper medicine” or for “evidence-based policies in all areas”, but the two are mutually exclusive. And while they’re mutually exclusive, the Greens’ solid evidence-based showing in areas where there is huge money being thrown around can be dismissed by their detractors because “they believe in crystals and stuff”. And that works with persuadable potential voters.

        I never said it was limited to the Greens. Read carefully what I said. I said they are far and away the most evidence-based party, but still not totally evidence-based and that incompleteness means their high-quality policies in expensive areas can be dismissed. That means that everyone else is worse than the Greens at evidence-based policies!

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