Euro-Sante :: Euro-Health

Ann Glover, as reported on Euractiv (here):

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. …

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’. However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda. “If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

Disturbing stuff. In my role as an advisor and having taught policy development to civil servants, I have emphasised their responsibility to “speak truth to power”. If, as Glover says, this isn’t happening within the European policy-making machinery, then that may explain much policy creep at the Commission level.

Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour
The policy process: Not what Ann Glover has in mind? Source: Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour (Photo credit: Product of Newfoundland)

Her characterisation of European civil servants wind-up toys, that just run off and do what they are told suggests there could be some danger to good governance from hyperactive civil servants who unthinkingly do what they’re told with dossiers that should be binned. This suggest two things problems: the first is the quality of guidance on developing policy options itself, how to work with external advisors (carefully by the way) and the second is that the interface between the most senior level and Commissioners lacks candour and the failure of the most senior to truth to power. This is evidence of cowardice. at least, and incompetence at most.

Her remarks suggest that perhaps Glover hasn’t also been particularly effective elevating the evidence base of policy-making itself. Her solution, though, is seriously flawed. She seems to believe that it is possible to create a definitive evidence base around which all can agree and that it is indeed possible in policy processes to factor out the political dimension. The ‘symmetry of ignorance’ [see NOTES below] explains why a room full of experts don’t usually agree and why it is relatively easy for ‘my’ experts to challenge ‘your’ experts. Policy problems are complex, sometimes called wicked, problems, and that means that one single course of action is unlikely, that interventions may create new problems, and unlike (scientific) problems, you may not know when you’ve solved the problem (called ‘the stopping’ problem).

What science dislikes is absence of agreement (e.g. science is about proof, not consensus), whereas policy is about consensus and disagreement: the result is one of the following: do nothing, act from the precautionary principle (i.e. do something just in case, but knowing there isn’t really any good evidence), guess, compromise or satisficing [see NOTES below]. Scientists often believe that evidence leads unequivocally to specific policy actions, but this is just one view of the world. While Glover has claimed to provide independent advice, she has actualy provided ‘her’ advice, reflecting how she weighs the balance of evidence against her understanding and framing of the problems and choices on offer from what she has read, and the people she has spoken to. One could legitimately ask whether her academic roots and scientific preferences as a biologist have preconditioned her towards thinking about policy problems and evidence in a particular way.That does not detract from her alarm at the policy machinery, but does inform our assessment of her proposed solution.

Hasn’t anyone read Feyerabend?

Therefore, purely technocratic policy governance, as I think Glover is advocating, is flawed and likely dangerous as it replaces the messiness of the real world of policy problems and choice-making with tidy authoritarianism.

Equally worrying is her comment on the quality of advice from paid consultants. I once put a dossier to a DG to be be an advisor, but haven’t been called (we’re up to almost 3 years, so I guess I shouldn’t expect the phone to ring!) It is the job of advisors to advise, and that means also saying when something is not a good idea. That the European Commission has constructed a giant out-sourced advisory industry is not surprising as it is actually a tactic to cement the European project by creating an advisory system that works in harmony with the Commission’s objectives. That so many consultancies have fallen for this trick and taken the bait is disappointing but not surprising.

Many of the Commission-funded consultancy reports I have read have started and ended with the merits of the proposed Commission actions. I can’t recall a report that said something shouldn’t be done. It is also a tactic in assessing policy options (what Glover refers to as risk assessment) to write the most about the favoured option and less about the least favoured option.I blogged here on a Commission consultancy meeting, the cost of which was no doubt staggering; the Commissioner spoke on what she wanted, everyone agreed, the presentations showed how Europe would be a better place if this were done and everyone agreed with everyone, had a nice lunch and the many unpaid interns took notes for their CVs to PR firms or consultancies so they could get more work. And so the system feeds itself by indoctrinating people into the world of uncritical agreement.

Now, for disclosure, I have been ticked off by Commission civil servants for things I’ve said that were not European Commission

doctrine. Perhaps that explains why my dossier is in a box on the bottom shelf.

NOTE:

Symmetry of Ignorance: The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem. Source: Horst Rittel, 1972 “On the planning crisis”.

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.

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