Are the election promises being thrown around attention-grabbing soundbites rather than evidence-based policies? And how are policies are born? Sarah Lang looks into it.
Free dental care for under-30s (Labour). A $500 million “pothole repair fund” (National). Removing GST from fruit and vegetables (Labour). Bringing back 100kph speed limits on state highways that have had their speeds reduced (National). Three hundred more frontline police to tackle inner-city crime (Labour AND National).
These are a mere few of the promises being made by political parties campaigning to win the general election.
Suddenly we’re hearing all these things that sound just dandy! How do politicians suddenly know how to change our lives for the better? Have they been hibernating over winter? Or is this a lolly scramble?
The birth of policies
When we look at how policies are born, we must first make a key distinction. Within the executive branch of government – which runs the country and makes decisions on what New Zealand should spend its money on – public servants are asked to come up with policy advice, which is then considered by ministers (we’ll get to that later).
But political parties coming out with policies or promises as an election looms – well, that’s another thing entirely. (We must make a distinction between the policies of the current Labour-led government, and the policies that the Labour Party is promising should they return to power with or without a coalition.)
With political parties’ promises, are they assessing what could really improve a certain area of concern (e.g. crime)? Or are they just going with sound-bites and hoping the rest will work itself out later on?
Dr Jaimie Monk is a public-policy researcher at Motu Research: an independent, public-good-focused economics and policy research institute. I asked her about how the political parties may be coming up with their policies.
She says the process will be different for each party, but they may run prospective policies past consultants and/or focus groups. “For politicians, when deciding on policy, there’s always a tension between policy development and party politics – between what the evidence says will work, and what’s likely to win votes,” Jaimie says. ‘During the build-up to an election, it certainly appears that the latter is driving a lot of the policy decision-making.”
“You’ve got politicians trying to win votes and most of us are pretty present-biased. We tend to take $100 now versus $125 in a year’s time.” This ‘present bias’, a concept that fits within behavioural economics, is our inclination to choose a smaller reward in the present instead of a larger reward in the future. And that makes total sense. Right now, the cost of living is understandably top of mind.
Watching what I’ll call the “Chris-offs” in the leaders’ debates, and hearing about policies, I feel like parties are throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. That they’re throwing out things that can be summarised in five words! “That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Jaimie says. “To win votes, they’re promising to do whatever they think is popular. Labour removing GST from fruit and veg is a classic example. My personal opinion is that Labour might have misjudged that one, because some people will listen to economists who say this is a terrible idea.”
A story in stuff.co.nz about the first leaders’ debate talked about “unashamed election season bribery”. Others might describe such things as ‘eye-catching policies’. What would Jaimie call it?
“I’d tend more towards calling it bribery at this point, or at least headlining what they think will be most popular. Look at, for example, ‘getting tough on crime by increasing prison sentences’ – the evidence base that longer sentences reduce crime is very negligible. [Both ACT and National are promising tougher sentences.]
“If, for example, you said to a New Zealander ‘if I give you $1.5 million to spend on making New Zealand a better place, what will you do?’, most of them wouldn’t say ‘we should spend that $1.5 million on giving ten prisoners an extra year in prison’. That wouldn’t be the first thing that pops into most people’s minds! But people are concerned about crime and hearing about tougher sentences can give them a feeling of comfort. The fact that it’s incredibly expensive – $150,000 per prisoner per year – and the fact that money may be better spent in other places is unlikely to factor into the average voter’s decision-making.”
“There’s some sort of disconnect,” Jaimie says, “with realising there’s a cost to all these things – as in, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This is ‘opportunity cost’: when you spend on something, you can’t spend on something else. The pot is limited.
“Policy,” Jaimie says, “is a lot to do with how things are perceived rather than how they actually are. There’s this classic quote about The Lamppost Theory of Economic Policy: that politicians use economics, or evidence in general, like drunks use lampposts, for support but not really for illumination.”
Has Jaimie noticed that parties who take power sometimes water down policies or backtrack a bit once in government?
“Totally. You could take it cynically or not. Sometimes it was just trying to get votes, but sometimes it’s politicians initially being overly optimistic about things – and encountering reality once they’re elected, or having to work with other parties in MMP. Or it’s about misjudging the cost or the practicalities of what it actually takes to roll something out.”
When a government is in power, how are policies born?
I got a bit of insight into this when I did a postgraduate public-policy paper called GOVT 523: Policy Methods & Practise at Victoria
University in 2020 (the magazines I wrote for had closed and I was looking at potential alternative careers).
As part of the course, we each chose an avatar and a unique ‘Policy Opportunity’. Here was my choice: “I am a Junior Policy Advisor at the Department of Corrections. Charitable trust Arts Access Aotearoa is lobbying the Department of Corrections to provide creative-arts programmes in all New Zealand prisons, on the basis that one of the Department’s two key roles is to provide education, job training and support to rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism (re-offending) rates.”
I imagined that the Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis is considering funding a pilot of creative-arts programmes in a New Zealand prison – and needs to know if this is a good idea. I’ve been assigned to present information that may be pertinent. Here was my ‘Evidence Question’ to answer: “what is known about the benefits and drawbacks of creative-arts programmes in prisons?”.
Bear with my process for a second: I found different pieces of research and evidence in the public domain (primarily, journal articles). Then I assessed and rated the quality of four of these items of evidence against key criteria of my own choice, including the reputation of the author and publication, the recency, location and design of the study, the contribution to knowledge of the wider research area, the risk of bias, and conclusions that are well supported by analysis of the results without ‘overreach’.
So I learned about the kind of process that should happen: one that would theoretically weed out the bad ideas, and illuminate the good ones. But is this common practise?
Jaimie is somewhat reassuring. “There are a lot of great people in the public sector in Wellington doing good work. Their job is to be impartial, provide advice and research for these things [prospective policies], and take it to the minister for big decisions. Then the minister weighs up both ‘is this going to work’ and political considerations.”
Political considerations, as in how the public may react? “Yes, but also how it [the policy] fits with the direction of their party and coalition parties etc. There’s a strong incentive not to cause any unnecessary negative media attention, so risk aversion plays a role in decision-making too.”
Are some policies left like embryos in a petri dish, and never birthed? “I’m sure there are,” Jaimie says. “There are ideas thrown around all the time and some things will get well developed then frequently shelved at the last minute, usually for political considerations, or because Covid came along and took so much time and attention.”
Back to the future
Something that interested me when I did my course was the concept of ‘Futures Thinking’. Obviously, there are no facts about the future. No one can predict it accurately. But not thinking about the future simply doesn’t cut it, policy-wise. So, in the face of the big challenges of uncertainty and complexity – and also ambiguity and volatility – what are some ways of considering what could happen in the future, and how can certain techniques be used to inform how a policy should be enacted?
For example, you can use the approach of: Backcasting (working backwards from a desired future to create a timeline of actions), The Futures Wheel (structured brainstorming to help visualise the impact of a policy), Scenarios (imagining alternative plausible futures, not predicting but asking ‘what if?’), and Horizon-scanning (identifying and monitoring emerging trends that might affect or disrupt policy).
There’s also Co-design (designing policies by involving a wide array of stakeholders), Delphi (consulting with experts to gather opinion and prioritise issues), Visioning (identifying a vision, often with focus groups or workshops, and the steps you need to take to get there), and Volitions (taking into account people’s pre-existing values, world views and choices).
For another assignment in my course, I again adopted my avatar as a policy analyst for the Department of Corrections. TheMinister of Corrections Kelvin Davis is considering allocating funding for a pilot of a creative-arts program in Rimutaka Prison to identify both effects on inmate participants, and post-release outcomes including increased employment rates, and reduced recidivism (re-offending). Before he makes his final decision, I have to use Futures Thinking – so I looked at Visioning and Co-design to address uncertainty challenges, and Volitions and Scenarios to address complexity challenges.
The Department Of The Prime Minister and Cabinet has The Policy Project (dpmc.govt.nz/our-programmes/policy-project), which aims to “equip policy practitioners, teams and agencies with tools, information and advice to develop their skills and capability”. The Policy Project’s Policy Skills Framework describes the Futures Thinking skills that policy practitioners need, provides guidance and training on futures thinking, and supports agencies with the delivery of their Long-term Insights Briefings “which require the public service to look over the horizon, for the common good”.
So yes, Futures Thinking is happening, but to what extent? It isn’t Jaimie’s area of expertise but she says “a lot less of it happens, than should happen”.
Jaimie also says shortcuts are often taken when it comes to evaluation. “There is very little reassessment: as in, checking if a policy that has been implemented works as intended. You were probably taught the nice little policy cycle in your course when it comes to policy formation, decision-making, implementation and evaluation. Evaluation is meant to inform future policy creation, but in a practical sense, there’s very little incentive for anyone to find out if something went right or wrong. No one wants to find out about their mistakes, so there’s far less evaluation undertaken than there should be.”
So, back to the election. When we look at parties’ promises, we must remember that they can be broken. There’s no mechanism to force a party to keep that promise if it’s elected. We can’t sue it. There will still be viable policy embryos sitting in petri dishes. There will be others that never even get to embryo stage (creative-arts programmes in prisons, anyone?).
So what can we do as voters? Maybe try to tune out the soundbites and the bluster, and instead look hard at party policies before we vote. We’ll be breaking down the policies on the areas you feel most strongly about – thanks to those who took part in our social-media poll. Stand by!