Politicians vs policy analysts

Jonathan Portes has an interesting post on the Department of Work and Pensions’ analysis of Mandatory Work Activity. Jonathan does a great job summarising the research and it’s fantastic to see good evaluation coming out of the Department. The political headline of the post is less positive: “DWP analysis shows mandatory work activity is largely ineffective. Government is therefore extending it…”. The implication is that, whatever the evaluation shows, the Government is committed to the policy.

Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have not been universally welcomed.

That sad state of affairs is not unusual: many studies have been unable to link bureaucrats’ cost-benefit analyses with any change in regulatory efficiency. Researchers have clearly struggled to understand why the effect of CBA within government has been so small. Despite decades of effort in the UK to improve impact assessment, the research tends to find that it is done poorly and largely ignored in the final decision. The recommended medicine is usually more of the same, which seems unlikely to yield significant gains.

One possibility is that policy analysts and politicians view regulation through a different lens. For an analyst every new regulation is an experiment to be evaluated and assessed. It is nigh on impossible to know the effect of many policies before they are implemented so abandoning a policy that is not working should not be viewed as failure. Rather, it is the successful application of a philosophy of experimentation to improve regulation. The analyst is committed not to any particular policy, but to the process of iterative assessment and improvement.

By contrast, a politician must publicly commit to a specific policy and stake their reputation on it. If the policy fails then they personally suffer huge reputational damage. They are committed to the policy, not the process, so it is difficult for them to pay serious heed to negative evaluations of flagship policies. It is easy to blame politicians but that will not change the incentives they face. Perhaps we should look at the political system and ask why it forces them to commit to particular policies, come what may.