UK “evidence free” government since 2010: What can we learn from the Dutch analysis of manifesto pledges?

In the May issue of Evidence and Policy Sources and resources section, Mark Monaghan interviews  Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) Wim Suyker about the Dutch approach to manifesto pledge analysis. In the run up to the UK General Election it seems pertinent to share this interview as we all ready ourselves to make decisions on who will govern us over the next five years.

EvP 2013 [FC]The 2010 general election signalled a turning point in the fortunes of evidence-based policy-making. From a high-point under the early iterations of the New Labour government, it has become apparent that the current Coalition government have been less preoccupied with highlighting the evidence-based credentials of their policy formulation.

Recent commentaries have gone as far as to highlight the ‘strange new world of evidence-free government’. It is, of course, debatable how ‘new’ this actually is. However, a paradox of the declining prominence of evidence within government is the increasing scrutiny of evidence use from outside in the form of a seemingly increasing desire on behalf of the public to scrutinise the work of politicians.

This is possibly (probably) a response to the Parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, but within this climate, many new initiatives such as the FactCheck blog hosted by Channel 4 and the creation of an Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) have come to fruition. According to its web pages, the OBR was created in 2010 to ‘provide independent and authoritative analysis of the UK’s public finances’.

More recently in conjunction with the Alliance for Useful Evidence, The Conversation has launched its Manifesto Check service. Such initiatives may seem long overdue, yet they have been a common feature of the Dutch political system for many years, particularly in the work of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB).

Established in 1945, the CPB is an independent organisation working ‘at the crossroads of economics and public policy’. It provides quarterly forecasts on the state of the Dutch economy. Importantly, it also offers all interested political Parties an analysis of the mainly economic effects of their manifesto pledges.

This analysis then helps shape political debate in the run up to General Elections. As we approach the 2015 General Election it is necessary to see what lessons the UK (and elsewhere) can learn from Dutch experience. In this interview Mark Monaghan discusses the CPB Manifesto Project with Wim Suyker of the CPB.

Monaghan: OK, so could you please tell our readers about the work of the CPB and your work within it?

Suyker: We are an institute employing around 100 people. We do various research projects, but we are also responsible for the official macro economic forecasts used for the budget. In that way we are comparable with the Office of Budget Responsibility in the UK. So that is our main activity. I could tell you about our history, but that is all the things that you can find on our website.

Monaghan: Could you tell us more about the Manifesto’s Project? How long has that been running and do all Parties participate?

Suyker: We have been running that since 1986. All Parties can decide if they want to join this exercise. It is on a voluntary basis in the sense that there is no law that says Parties should participate in this. It can, however, lead to awkward questions from the Press and other parties if Parties do not cooperate in the project. Last time we had ten Parties involved in this project. It was in 2012.

Monaghan: So there were ten Parties who submitted their Manifestos to yourselves, how many Parties in total contested the elections?

Suyker: There was only one Party in Parliament (Party for the Animals), that in principle didn’t participate in the project. It is not their cup of tea. There was another Party who in the election polls had 1 seat – this was the party of the Retired Persons (50PLUS) – they could have joined the project, but they decided not to do it. This was because they were very new and they didn’t have the staff etcetera.

Monaghan: OK, so it tends to be smaller, single issue Parties that don’t participate?

Suyker: Well, it depends. For instance, we have the Socialist Party. They are to the left of the Social Democratic or Labour Party and they are always very explicit in the way they decide whether to participate. ‘Is there something in it for us or not’? So the fact that basically now all Parties are participating now does not mean that it will be the same next time and it depends on the political situation. It is likely that the Parties who participated the last time will participate again in the coming projects, but it is not certain.

Monaghan: You mentioned earlier in passing the kind of, I suppose, penalty that Parties get if they fail to engage with the process, but that is not an official sanction?

Suyker: Oh no, it is more a judgement in the Press. For some parties – such as the Party for the Animals – it doesn’t hurt them by not doing it. It may hurt them if they are participating because their electorate may not like this kind of economic analysis.

Monaghan: And so that brings me on to the next question which is on what grounds are the Manifestos scrutinised? Is it just economic policy or does it cover social policies, health policies and so on…?

Suyker: Well, we have made a modification on this. In 2012 it was rather a broad exercise which we were doing with the Environmental Agency. We were also taking into account environmental impacts on policies. So we looked at fiscal and infrastructure policies. There was an analysis of energy and climate, innovation and education. You can get a flavour of it by looking through the English language summary. Having said that, there were a lot of issues tackled or topics tackled in the discussion before elections, but it is really the impact on economic growth in the short term, the impact on the Government budget in the medium term and the impact on employment in the long term that are the main issues discussed after the analysis is published.

Monaghan: So is the purpose of it to check facts?

Suyker: Perhaps I should clarify something. We don’t analyse the manifestos. The Parties make their election manifesto and on the basis of that they come to us with a list of measures that they want checking. So we don’t have to do an analysis of the Manifesto, it is for the Party to come with this list of measures, as concrete as possible, for us to look at. They may subsequently come with an additional list also.

Monaghan: So does that process take place publicly or privately?

Suyker: At that stage it is on a confidential basis. At the start of the process we make clear, by publishing on the website, what we are going to do. After that, it is down to Parties to decide whether to participate or not. We don’t comment in the Press which Party is or is not participating in the project. If a Party decides to stop its activity we will not comment on that in the Press. We will not say that a Party started the process and then quit. It is a thing for the Parties to say in the Press or not.

Monaghan: OK, and so the findings of the CPB are they published before or after the election?

Suyker: Before the election. Our aim is to publish that at least 3 weeks before the elections because we don’t want it too close to the election date. It is desirable that there is some discussion about the output we have, but it is also desirable that it is not too close to the election date.

Monaghan: Is that because you are concerned about the findings swaying public opinion in any way?

Suyker: Well in some ways for a good debate, you need some time to digest the complex issues. So I think time is desirable in a project like ours that the public can take through the Press the results, their can be some discussion about the results between the Parties and I think that is a fruitful input into the elections.

Monaghan: How do you decide the order in which the Manifestos are looked at?

Suyker: It is based on the outcome of the previous elections. The Party that has the biggest share of the electorate will be number 1 in the publication and they will be the first Party mentioned in tables and graphs etcetera.

Monaghan: So all the findings are published in one document? It is not a series of separate documents?

Suyker: No, we have one document. Last time that was 454 pages. Basically, that is it. Last times we gave a press conference at the time of publication. At the beginning of the process, we clarify the rules of the project. There is some additional material in which we do this and that is basically all the material involved.

Monaghan: So this 450 page document is then released to the Press

Suyker: Yes

Monaghan: And there is an executive summary…?

Suyker: Yes exactly. Then there are chapters. Every Party has its chapter and there is an introductory chapter which discusses the methodological issues involved.

Monaghan: Is there any sense from yourselves that the findings of the report can or do sway public opinion and is there any evidence for it?

Suyker: Well, you can see that the number of hits on our website increases a lot just after publication of the report and you can also see how it is mentioned a lot in the Press so it is clear that it is playing a role in the election process. What is also interesting is that after elections we have negotiations to form a Coalition and it is really obvious to say that the publication is an important input in this respect.

Monaghan: Is there anything specific to the discuss political system as to why this process works and would it translate to other places?

Suyker: What is peculiar or specific to the Dutch situation is that we always have a coalition government. The UK not also has its coalition government, but it is based on a senior/junior partner arrangement. Most of the time our Coalitions are different. Of course there is one Party who supply the Prime Minister but they are more equal partners. I think in this context the project fits very well.

It is the case that you also need to have authority and to be trusted by the public. I discussed this with French colleagues and for them it is hard to understand what we are doing. There needs to be consensus about how the economy works in broad terms. If you are considering a shock to expenditure there needs to be a consensus that an expansionary fiscal shock in the short-term will have a positive impact on GDP in the future. There should also be a consensus that changes in taxes and social security payments will change incentives to participate in the labour market and thus are influencing labour supply and employment in the long term that incentives on labour supply will have measurable outcomes.

It relies on a situation where there aren’t too many elements of the process that Parties don’t agree with. I think it is always for Parties to give and take. There may be elements that they like more than other elements, but they should accept the rules of the game.

Monaghan: So in your opinion, the project only works in the context that there is consensus across the political spectrum on what can be measured?

Suyker: Yes. Political Parties should accept that we are setting some rules for this project and they should be more or less happy with those rules. We always try to inform them of the rules some time before we start. We also discuss changes to the process, but there should be a consensus climate otherwise it would be very tough to do.

Monaghan: Have you ever discussed the process with counterparts in the United Kingdom?

Suyker: Well, Robert Chote [chair of the OBR] you mean?

Monaghan: Yes and others?

Suyker: We have given various presentations abroad. There are a lot of colleagues abroad who are interested in our experience and one of my colleagues this week was in Bratislava to explain the system. I’m pretty sure that if after the elections in the UK it is decided that they will have this kind of exercise then we will be in contact with the OBR.

Monaghan: So do you think this could be translated to the UK context, bearing in mind the level of consensus you suggested was necessary for the exercise to succeed?

Suyker: I think that I had more doubts about this three or four years ago, but if you have an OBR that is responsible for the economic forecasts then you have already made a big step in research-based policy making. So I think it could work well in the UK, but the Parties need to get the experience and you would have to show how there are trade offs in the process of decision-making. So I think it could work, yes.

Monaghan: OK, well I look forward to seeing whether it materialises

Suyker: Yes but from what I understand it is that after the elections Parties may change the guidance they are giving to the OBR or the Charter of Budget Responsibility of the OBR or something like that, but firstly we will have to see how the elections work out

Monaghan: Yes, would you basically see an expanded role for the OBR?

Suyker: I guess that is the most likely scenario. That is my guess, but I am not familiar enough with the situation to be sure, but the OBR is the most likely candidate to do this kind of project.

Monaghan: OK, that has been really interesting an helpful, so thank you so much for your time

Suyker: You’re welcome.

#GE2015 #whyvote #imvotingbecause

This article will be published in Open Access Sources & Resources section of the May issue of Evidence & Policy. For a free online trial to this journal, please sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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