Forum will help us make better choices for the future

 

OPINION:Publicpolicy.ie plans to analyse choices and their likely implications for the Irish public, writes FRANK J CONVERY

‘THOSE WHO say do not know; those who know do not say.” The Zen proverb comes to mind as we try to make sense of the wave of commentary as to what’s happening to the economy, and what should or should not be done about it.

Our new independent think tank, the Irish Fiscal Policy Research Centre, to be called publicpolicy.ie, has been established to provide policymakers and civil society with the best available evidence to help inform the economic choices we face.

We are fortunate to be funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, so we are not financially dependent on Government, business, union or other interests.

Our website, publicpolicy.ie, will be launched soon. People who wish to be informed when it goes live can leave their email address on the site.

The project has been established with these ambitions:

* Carry out independent research to inform fiscal (tax and expenditure) policy choices;

* Communicate the results effectively;

* Stimulate constructive discussion among policymakers, civil society and the public.

We aim to make it as easy as possible for people to understand the choices and their implications, and most of what we provide will be free to all.

Why add to the cacophony? What will distinguish us from the rest?

Some of the existing sources, such as the Economic and Social Research Institute and Irisheconomy.ie, are directed mainly at economists.

Others, represented typically by the submissions made to influence the tax and expenditure provisions in the budget, are made to advance a particular interest.

“We are all special cases”: Camus’s observation is their motto.

Anger is an understandable feature of much commentary, but it is not a good basis for making decisions.

There is a lot of relevant data provided by the Central Statistics Office, the Central Bank, Revenue Commissioners, and many other Government departments and agencies, but it takes time to find it and to relate it to the issues under debate.

And many do not separate evidence – which represents facts on which most can agree – from analysis, which involves drawing conclusions from the evidence.

The sources for the evidence on which analyses are based are often not cited, and so they can’t be interrogated independently.

How do decisions or prospective decisions affect different socioeconomic groups, regions and sectors? There is a lot of vigorous assertion, but not enough evidence.

And finally, much commentary does not reflect the underlying uncertainties and ambiguities.

In publicpolicy.ie, we will do our best to correct these gaps. We will draw conclusions from facts where we believe such is warranted.

We will provide listeners and readers with the sources of evidence – national and international – on which conclusions are based. Authors will declare an interest where such is warranted.

We won’t duplicate what others are doing.

One example: the recently established Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is focusing on the balance between total exchequer income and expenditure. We will therefore not address this dimension.

In our work programme for 2012, the focus will be on better understanding the choices we face as regards government income and expenditure, and their implications. We will pay specific attention to:

* The distributional implications of budgetary policy;

* The budget and the quarterly troika reviews;

* Water pricing and property taxes;

* Pension reform;

* Governance.

The Irish policy system is a puzzle in that parts of it are as good as anywhere in the world, other elements are adequate and some parts are woeful. Why is this?

We will have a small research team led by Dónal de Buitléir doing its own analyses. Our board, which includes high-level expertise in accountancy, communications, economics, law, politics and taxation, will be active in shaping our strategy and driving our agenda. We’ll commission some research, and have a variety of forums where issues and choices will be discussed.

We will produce fiscal fact sheets, a chairman’s commentary which will appear bi-weekly from mid-January, board commentaries issued periodically by some board members, research reports and associated working papers, policy briefs and critical analyses and reactions in relation to selected policies, budget proposals and reports.

All of this will be enabled by a state-of-the-art website.

In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora says: “I can’t be satisfied any longer with what most people say, and with what’s in books. I must think out things for myself and try to understand them.”

Our job at publicpolicy.ie is to make “thinking things out” as easy as possible.


Prof Frank J Convery is chairman of the board of the Irish Fiscal Policy Research Centre. He is senior fellow at UCD Earth Institute