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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

fuelwatch boo boo « Previous | |Next »
July 4, 2008

Oh dear. Possum has discovered the makings of a horrible embarrassment for the Rudd government, the ACCC, or both, over the Fuelwatch scheme.

As with Newspoll, so with everything else numbery. The amateur will out.

Now it's a matter of waiting for the media to get hold of it.

Possum's broader argument, that in this day and age governments would be better off making this kind of thing accessible before they make policy decisions, resonates with the logic of blogworld. But blogworld isn't pollieworld, let alone mediaworld.

What's the more likely scenario?

Journo reads Possum's blog, cites Professor Don Harding's work with or without quote from Harding and neglects to mention blog at all. Government responds by becoming more secretive.

Journo reads Possum's blog and writes up article including reference to Possum and his arguments. Government notes Harding's paper and Possum's arguments for future consideration.

Journo reads Possum's blog, reads Harding's paper, gets quote from Harding, calls PM for response and PM appears on tonight's news thanking Harding and Possum for bringing this to his attention. Government seriously considers dropping Fuelwatch and asking Possum before they make any more decisions.


| Posted by Lyn at 2:20 PM | | Comments (26)
Comments

Comments

I hope it's not the last option - I'm busy enough as it is without having bloody Kevin on the phone! :-)

Seriously though, there is simply too much data now floating around, and too much expertise outside of government for any government to treat data with secrecy and expect to not get embarassed about what they've done occasionally. Especially a government priding itself on "evidence based policy".

"Evidence" is too often in the eye of the beholder - if they open up the data, their benefits far outweigh their costs over any timeframe.

Some of the smaller empire builders might not take too kindly to it, but they dont really matter in the broader scheme of political risk management.

Possum, Just tell Kevin to post his questions in your comments and let the thread sort it out. Easy.

I'd like to know how you could open up the data sharing/crunching process without ending up with abuses like the rubbish over climate science. You'd have to be very careful about what kinds of data and which data sets you were prepared to outsource for analysis.

Possum,
evidence based policy is all the rage these days in Canberra---especially in health and climate change. It is every positivist based with little understanding of interpretation and it is based on projections from limited data. Still, it is better than what we had under Howard (politics rules) even if it is still being used in the form of expert knowledge to keep concerned citizens out and the policy circles closed to the elite.

The point you make is a good one:

What has just happened here with FuelWatch, a fairly comprehensive debunking of the analysis that was used to justify a relatively irrelevant piece of policy, will increasingly happen to other areas that are far, far from irrelevant.The reason it will increasingly happen is simple – there is a greater number of interested policy specialists, analysts and general expertise that is external to government than there is within government. While this has pretty much been the case over the last 15 years or so, what differentiates then from now is that the external expertise can easily be aggregated and organised at virtually zero cost by the online world and the results of their independent analysis can be distributed widely to a very large, highly influential and still rapidly growing audience.

I whole heartedly agree. I concur with your remark about the bleatings over these reviews from the shallow end of the media pool in this country with their profound ignorance over the pointy end of politics. These journos have no conception of policy and have to be briefed by staffers on the ABC of policy in any area.(I did that briefing job for many a year).

I also concur with your proposal that the Rudd Government needs to:

adopt a data accessibility regime where as much of the data that is the basis for policy recommendations is made available to the wider public at the earliest possible time in the policy development cycle.

The Canberra bureaucracy will resist that as it means that they will have to argue their case in public sphere. They want to keep the data secret as it enhances their own power.The Canberra bureaucracy is really about power and control of the policy process. So we need to buid alternative sources of data and analysis.

Gary,
If it's based on projections from very little data then that's going to be one of the first criticisms from outsiders. n=3 does not triangulation make.

If, as Possum suggests, the data was released as early as possible in the policy development cycle you'd get the double insurance of more, and therefore more reliable, data.

Yeah Yeah Possum is just another Blog Wanker who presents criticism of everything and pasted information.

Lyn,
the other side of this is that sometimes you drive the policy even though the data is limited and often isn't there to back your policy option up. Climate change is the right thing to do. We know that. We also know that price needs to be set so as reduce greenhouse emissions.

The economic data isn't in on this but we know that this is the right direction to take. Reduce greenhouse emissions.

Les,
Possum is raising important issues about how an issue is dealt with in our policy culture as distinct from the politics of energy. Two different things. Most commentators concentrate on the politics. They go on about the costs of an emissions trading scheme to industry and do not bother with the differences between cap and trade as opposed to a carbon tax.

Surely Possum's own sweeping "the Rudd Government has made a huge error" rhetoric is flawed? It rests on a draft of a single paper which has not yet been subject to critical evaluation.

I think the broader argument overstates the influence of the blogosphere. Government decision-making has always been subject to scrutiny and criticism by external institutions and individuals with access to relevant data - academics, think tanks, trade unions and employer associations and so on. The process might be more public now than it used to be but that doesn't alter its nature.

What has changed is that some private individuals have taken to publishing analyses of public issues online, using data that is much more accessible to non-experts than it used to be. This has certainly created some small online forums where vigorous discussion occurs but I've yet to be convinced it's going to have a big impact on government decision-making. Bloggers might get a thrill when 'The Australian' deigns to address them in an editorial but they should not delude themselves that they have become Serious and Important People. Where, one might ask, is the evidence :-)?

In the past, true experts have usually had access to all the data that is required to express an informed opinion. That's their profession. Now we have lots of enthusiastic amateurs plugging away at their search engines and their news readers and charging into the fray to express opinions with varying degrees of understanding of the process of critical analysis and the scientific method. The outcome in most cases is like a letters to the editor page gone mad, with enormous amounts of noise (the climate change brouhaha is a good example) for negligible results.

Will it affect public policy formulation? I think it's much too early even to formulate hypotheses. But my gut feeling is no, not to any significant extent.

Ken - I gave it critical evaluation and I'm no idiot when it comes to these things, I also know of other more professored types that have seen it and agree that the methodology used was not only far superior to what the ACCC used, but the ACCC modelling was straight out incorrect.The draft paper is now available to all, it's open too public scrutiny rather than the private scrutiny it's already had (it didnt just come out of the blue you know)- it's hardly a piece of junk.

To say that government decision making has always been subject to external scutiny by those with access to the relevant data is a gross overstatement of the way things actually stand, to say that "true experts" have usually had access to all the data required is just complete and utter nonsense. More times than not trying to get access to government data whose analysis is the foundation of policy recommendations at the time is a completely futile exercise regardless of the institution that is trying to access it.Even departments and government agencies get stonewalled when trying to access data held by other government jurisdictions of units.

The blogging part is the least relevent issue here. Most of the analysis of policy data by independent third parties doesnt occur on blogs, it occurs through networks via email and ordinary human contact, the results of which occasionally make it's way to blogs and into academic journals after someone picks it up and runs with it. But more importantly, that third party research is often used as the basis of policy lobbying from a wide spectrum of groups.I know this to be the case first hand.

Where the blogging part will increasingly come in is exposing that research to not only a wider, generally interested audience, but more importantly to a specific insider audience that has an vested interest in the pointy end of politics and whom have only recently started to become aggregated around various sites in largish numbers.

As for the last bit, If you think some bloke with an excel sheet and statistics training that consists of making scatter plots will be the key demographic in any data transparency regime, I've got a bridge to sell you.

The biggest complaint by empirical researchers in Australia that focus heavily upon policy research is either the dismal state of ABS data classification and formatting, or the sheer lack of data to begin with.

This isnt 1985 anymore. There is more expertise and experience on policy and data analysis outside of government than there is within it simply because of the changing nature of our economy and the changing demands by industry of certain skillsets. If a government is going to run on a spiel of "evidence based policy", there will be more scrutiny of that "evidence" than any government has ever had before. Playing gatekeeper on the evidence will cause them immense grief.

Maybe Ken read Possum's argument differently to me. It wasn't some amateur blogger who found the faulty methodology but Harding. In academia world his own analysis will be up for scrutiny by others in academia world as per usual, only faster because it's available now, before the traditional peer review and publishing process has finished with it. The blog role here was pretty much limited to pointing out that the paper was accessible and points out a boo boo.

I didn't interpret Possum to be arguing that the role of
academics, think tanks, trade unions and employer associations and so on is about to change, just that what they do is becoming more accessible to the public. It doesn't necessarily follow that bloggers will take over the policy process or even that governments will pay any direct attention to them, but they can become part of the feedback loop among the academics and so on. They already do.

I also think it's a mistake to assume that the suits don't read blogs. I'll bet Belinda Neal has Googled her fingers to the bone in recent times.

Wait a minute. Ken was probably responding to the scenarios in the post, which was just me being shallow.

"charging into the fray to express opinions with varying degrees of understanding of the process of critical analysis and the scientific method." True. Witness the attack on Clive Hamilton at OLO.

Gary,
No argument from me on the climate change thing, but the Fuelwatch boo boo must throw some doubt on whatever process Garnaut uses as well. That doesn't necessarily make sense, but a good soundbite doesn't have to.

Les,
Assuming you're not joking or channelling Dennis Shanahan, you underestimate Possum.

Hehe Lyn the trouble is that shallow is what the intertubes excel at. The idea that the internet will enhance government decision-making because of increased public scrutiny and discussion is not backed by any evidence to date. On the contrary (think carers' allowance, fuel excise) the evidence suggests the blogosphere will add to the short-termism and reactive nature of government decision-making.

This is because there are no gatekeepers on the internet. Trolling, plausible nonsense from vested interests, flawed and partial analysis are all mixed up with work of true scholarship. The small amount of genuinely constructive discussion that does occur is on heavily moderated blogs like Club Troppo and even there, with no disrespect to the posters, the analysis is necessarily superficial and fragmented.

Most complex issues simply aren't susceptible to policy-making by group chats open to the world. They require intensive study and mastery of long, tedious reports. If quantitative data is involved they also require mastery of analytical tools that is possessed by no more than a fraction of the population. Democratising policy-making will only dumb it down to the level of the sound-bite and the demagogue.

I confess I don't understand Possum's argument about the availability of data. Most research is conducted by or on behalf of government or in the universities. Government research findings are under the control of the government and university research publications are by and large available to anyone with the money to buy them. It has always been thus and I don't see why it's about to change. Research conducted by third parties who don't depend on either government or university funding is miniscule in the big picture.

The confusion is evident here:

'Most of the analysis of policy data by independent third parties doesnt occur on blogs, it occurs through networks via email and ordinary human contact, the results of which occasionally make it's way to blogs and into academic journals after someone picks it up and runs with it. But more importantly, that third party research is often used as the basis of policy lobbying from a wide spectrum of groups.I know this to be the case first hand.'

It reads as if 'third party analysis' is being equated with 'third party research', when of course gathering data is an entirely different function to analysing it. However even if this is simply poor wording, the truth is that third parties have been lobbying governments using their own analyses of data since forever. I used to work for an organisation in the 1980s that employed a lot of people to do nothing else and it was certainly not doing anything unusual or new.

The argument that the internet has empowered 'specific insider audiences' in a way that didn't happen before simply fails to convince. I'm not saying it's wrong, only that I am not aware of any evidence that it's right. In the context of a discussion of evidence-based policy-making, I would have thought the need for evidence-based discussion is axiomatic.

Of course the intertubes excel at the shallow. What else can you expect when we all live in the outertubes? People are doing pretty much what they've always done, only online. I'm just being consistent, as I'm sure are many others.

The intertubes hasn't finished becoming what it will be, if it ever does. We're used to the idea that clever stuff goes on in closed institutions and inane stuff goes on on talkback radio and TV. At the moment those boundaries are blurring online so you do get a minestrone of the serious and the stupid, but it's changing all the time. We could see the whole thing settling into a similar silo pattern to the one we've had in the past, or we could see perpetual minestrone. Or something else.

When it comes to things like gigantic studies with vast quantities of quantitative and qualitative data, a single blog is definitely not ever going to manage to cover all of it. But there is plenty of evidence of collaboration or collective intelligence solving complex problems online. Geeks collectively building software for example. So far the cultural studies people are heading the research into that kind of thing, but there's also some stuff coming out of British studies where government has tried to involve people in political decision making. The biggest problems there have been the need for moderation, partisanship and lack of trust in government.

I don't know about government, but there are more open access academic journals all the time. Again, it's mostly the cultural studies stuff, but there's plenty at APO and CPD to be going on with. You don't get any more raw data there than anywhere else which is, as you would know, standard practice.

Yes, third party analysis is dirt ordinary, but it hasn't been available to third parties outside institutions and organisations before. Now it is. Well, some anyway. If those third parties have the expertise and something worthwhile to contribute, the only thing in the way is credentialism, which is a waste of resources.

Outside the context of policy making, consider what happened when the Crosby Textor research fell off the back of the truck. There's an example of independent third party analysis cross referencing whatever was available, doing better analysis than the original researchers, and the whole shebang gaining more from the collective intelligence of several bloggers and their commenters.

I can't see anything much changing anytime soon either in the way of policy development, but the possibility is there now, as is the possibility that the whole thing will fall over because of a few unfortunate episodes with Google alerts. It's still early days.

Lyn,
You got me. I was joking.
I read Possum's blog sometimes and find it mostly quite intelligent. I had never seen a comment from him him here and thought it would be amusing to call him a wanker on first comment.

On this issue I will defer to a previous comment and say that we have a working model of fuel watch that has been going for 7 years. If it was going to make fuel cheaper it would be quite evident by now by comparing the prices between there and other states. It is a good idea though to make stations display their price the day before. Motormouth.com.au already displays where you can get cheap fuel daily.
This latest debate over what the ACCC new and didn't know is really only about a cent a litre in my opinion and not worth using much brain power on.

Les, if you weren't one of my favourite people I'd say you're well overdue for a clobbering. "thought it would be amusing to call him a wanker on first comment". Indeed.

Fuelwatch does seem a bit pointless. If people don't know to buy petrol on Tuesday or Wednesday by now they're either not paying attention or they don't care. And it's not going to fix things for people in northern NSW looking at cheaper petrol across the street in Qld that they can't have because of where they got their licence.

Ken,
I agree with your argument overstating the influence of the blogosphere. What we have is a lot of:

enthusiastic amateurs plugging away at their search engines and their news readers and charging into the fray to express opinions with varying degrees of understanding of the process of critical analysis and the scientific method. The outcome in most cases is like a letters to the editor page gone mad, with enormous amounts of noise (the climate change brouhaha is a good example) for negligible results.

I concur with you that this does not affect public policy formulation to any significant extent. Does anybody expect that? Or argue that?

It will affect the politics of the issue though as supposed to policy formulation.

Possum,
I agree with your argument that:

The blogging part is the least relevant issue here. Most of the analysis of policy data by independent third parties doesnt occur on blogs, it occurs through networks via email and ordinary human contact, the results of which occasionally make it's way to blogs and into academic journals after someone picks it up and runs with it. But more importantly, that third party research is often used as the basis of policy lobbying from a wide spectrum of groups.I know this to be the case first hand.

Dead right. Access Economics would be a case in point.

And the blogs? Where do they fit in? You say that their impact:

will increasingly come in is exposing that research to not only a wider, generally interested audience, but more importantly to a specific insider audience that has an vested interest in the pointy end of politics and whom have only recently started to become aggregated around various sites in largish numbers.

That emphasis on data is a bit narrow. We also have the ideas about issues that will increasingly form part of the insider audience that has an vested interest in the pointy end of politics.

Many of the staffers and researchers in the political parties are not known for developing new ideas. So a network of ideas and data will increasingly circulate. I am not sure that many ideas will come from academia judging from the recent past. They seemed to be more concerned with status, closed door and intellectual property these days.

Lyn,
Possum is right when he says that there is:

more expertise and experience on policy and data analysis outside of government than there is within it simply because of the changing nature of our economy and the changing demands by industry of certain skillsets.

All policy does is spell out the different options or pathways that have been tabled to resolve or solve an issue. With the fusing of the major parties on policy has led to less-informed debate on important public issues, politics has become more about managing the problem than finding the solution. So there is a need to move beyond managing the problem.

It's not the data that is crucial here --it is the options. We can argued about which the options should be on the table and the merits of the options. Possum goes on to say:

If a government is going to run on a spiel of "evidence based policy", there will be more scrutiny of that "evidence" than any government has ever had before. Playing gatekeeper on the evidence will cause them immense grief.

You can see that accountability happening over CoAG's decision to do little in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Ken,
you say:

The argument that the internet has empowered 'specific insider audiences' in a way that didn't happen before simply fails to convince. I'm not saying it's wrong, only that I am not aware of any evidence that it's right. In the context of a discussion of evidence-based policy-making, I would have thought the need for evidence-based discussion is axiomatic.

The internet has had a big influence as a lot of policy stuff goes online for public acces--eg., the work of Productivity Commission or Treasury papers. A lot of the public submissions to Senate and House of Representatives inquiries also go online.

So we bloggers and policy orientated academics have a lot more raw material to work with.

Lyn,
from what I understand Garnaut's team has had insufficient time to complete the economic modelling required to determine targets for carbon emissions, trajectories for emissions reduction, or recommendations on a carbon price. For this we'll have to wait until late August, when the supplementary draft report is to be published.

Gary,
There's no simple way to talk about what role the blogosphere might play, either now or in the future. There's not really any such thing as a blogosphere singular and some would be more useful than others depending on what they do , how they do it, and what sort of information a reader might be looking for.

You have the added complication that they don't generally compartmentalise following the logic of modernity. Good policy ideas or solutions might turn up in comments threads on a piece about stupid journalism. It's not so much a matter of knowing where to look as having stupendous amounts of time to sift through it all in the hope of coming across a happy accident. That does not fit with organisational and institutionalised, egg crate thinking.

Lyn,
we can talk about the role of the political bloggers are playing now in our political culture as distinct from the future. I have no idea what will happen in the future in Australia.

The role of the political bloggers are playing now is more commentary on the politics of the day than policy engagement. The more interesting webloggers move beyond this to begin reflecting on our political culture and analysing the way that it works. Isn't that the debate we are having here?

'... the work of Productivity Commission or Treasury papers. A lot of the public submissions to Senate and House of Representatives inquiries also go online.'

But this stuff has always been available to professional researchers including academics - it's their bread and butter. Plus of course enormous amounts of data that only gets reported in academic journals, most of which is still not available to the general public. The internet has not increased the amount of research being conducted or its availability to 'insider groups' - it's increased its availability to the general public, with mixed results. The chaotic climate change shouting from all sides is the best example I can think of where an informed insider group making policy (if there is one) will have to achieve results in spite of the pandemonium in the blogosphere, not with its assistance.

The effect that blogging has and will have on 'politics of the day' and political culture is a totally different issue to the impact of the internet on evidence-based government decision-making, or at least it is on my interpretation of Possum's post. Day-to-day politics and political culture have bugger-all to do with evidence.

If I've misunderstood Possum's argument, maybe someone can nominate an example of one of the new 'specific insider audiences' that have allegedly been empowered by the internet and are consequently influencing government decision-making by effective use of data newly available on the internet.

Ken,
you and I agree on this:

The effect that blogging has and will have on 'politics of the day' and political culture is a totally different issue to the impact of the internet on evidence-based government decision-making, or at least it is on my interpretation of Possum's post. Day-to-day politics and political culture have bugger-all to do with evidence.

Its the effect of blogging on day-to-day politics that is of interest since most political bloggers are not a part of the policy culture. Nor do they want to be.

What happened to the Governments promise that gas would never rise beyond one third of the price of petrol as it was a waste product that a was found for.
My understanding is that the flame that used to burn so brightly at the refineries is now LPG.