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Insights 36: 22 September 2017
The Initiative's NBR column: Why New Zealand needs longer parliamentary terms
Oliver Hartwich comments on the election on ABC Radio National
Read Eric Crampton's essay on why New Zealand is an island of sanity in a mad world

Letís get apolitical
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Every now and then, you come across an idea that makes you wonder why you had never thought of it before. I experienced such a moment on Tuesday when I met American author, speaker and entrepreneur Lisa Witter.

A friend had introduced us by email and suggested we should meet while Lisa is in New Zealand. I am glad we did because she told me about her start-up business, Apolitical.

The definition of the word ‘apolitical’ is not being interested or involved in politics. And Apolitical, the company, certainly is not into politics. Its business is policy.

Around the world, hundreds of national and state governments work on similar issues. Though each country is unique, many policy challenges are not. Dealing with congestion, attracting good teachers and ensuring housing is affordable are common themes across many places.

This is where Apolitical comes in. Its approach is to create a sort of TripAdvisor and LinkedIn network for government officials worldwide. It is a platform for mandarins to share their best projects, learnings and solutions – and a way to identify colleagues in other countries who might be able to help.

As Lisa Witter said she felt frustrated by how long it takes for good ideas to spread. We all tend to work in our silos, be they departments or entire countries. By virtually connecting people in the same field who otherwise would never meet, Witter and her team want to help governments work better.

Once registered for Apolitical, a whole world of policy innovation awaits the user. In this world, you can find out how Taiwan overcame a six-year political stalemate on regulating online alcohol sales by using an online citizen engagement system.

You can learn about a Dutch programme that created the world’s first village for dementia sufferers with great health benefits for its patients.

And you can discover how Mozambique introduced a new way of registering land titles for its rural population.

The people behind Apolitical are idealists. They want governments to be more innovative.

But that does not mean that Apolitical was run by dreamers or ivory-tower theorists. It is a for-profit business with an entrepreneurial vision.

Finding out about Apolitical amid New Zealand’s crazy election campaign was uplifting: There is a world of good policy ideas out there.

Whoever wins tomorrow’s election, let’s hope they engage with it. We need more good ideas. And less politics.

Twas the night before the election
Jenesa Jeram | Policy Analyst |
‘Twas the night before the election

When all through the think tank

Not a creature was stirring

Because frankly, all we can do now is sit and wait.

While the outcome of the election remains anyone’s guess, one thing is certain. We need to know how to measure the new government’s success.

If elections are the public’s opportunity to give the government a performance review, then new governments could do with a clear set of goals or KPI’s.

Otherwise, how will we know what our new government stands for? In three years’ time, how will we be able to judge the government’s progress on the issues it purports to prioritise?

Though parties can get away with – and even be rewarded for – platitudes, once they are in government we will need to see results. It is all very well making policy and spending promises, but the public deserves to know how those promises have stacked up over time.

The current government set the standard with its introduction of Better Public Service (BPS) targets. The BPS targets outlined the Government’s top 10 priorities in complex, long term issues and tracks the progress made. To illustrate, National’s targets included reducing long term welfare dependence, improving maths and literacy skills, and reducing the waiting time for people on the social housing register.

The BPS targets have not been without controversy. Some targets have been “updated” (discarded), making it hard to track real progress over time. And any targets will almost inevitably reflect political objectives that not everyone will share.

But that is no reason to dump the concept. If parties are committed to transparency and accountability, they will retain their targets even if the outcomes appear politically unfavourable. And the fact that parties will differ in their priorities is a feature, not a bug.

Rather than just restrict measures of political progress to public services, the incoming government could go even wider and adopt economic measures.

Likewise, given rising house prices are a key election issue, surely that should be front and centre of government reporting. If the government were really ambitious, it might even look into closing the income gap between New Zealand and Australia too.

This election voters have had the opportunity to appraise the government on its motivation, progress, and room for improvement.

No matter your political persuasion, voters should at least be able to judge whether future governments achieve what they set out to achieve.

"The Invisible Handful"
Sam Warburton | Research Fellow |
A flock of buzzards. A den of snakes. A shiver of sharks.
A swarm of eels. A pride of peacocks. An intrusion of cockroaches.
Hyenas. Rats. Flies.
These are all animals that economists have been compared to. But what do we call a group of economists?
In a recent article, journalist Jo Moir coined the collective noun ‘a wealth of economists’. This is too clever to have been unintentional and sparked a flurry of discussion publicly and among The New Zealand Initiative’s economists.
Several people proposed ‘a market of economists’, but that would suggest demand for our services. ‘A supply’ might be more accurate. Or even ‘a surplus of economists’.

One of New Zealand’s premier economists thought ‘a variance of economists’ could cover both the reliability of our forecasts and the divergence of our views.

Another thought ‘a cartel of economists’, but for the same reason as ‘a variance’ works, constant public disputes would soon break the cartel up.

Other notable ideas included a vault, a treasury, the Treasury, an inflation, a speculation, a squabble, a malapertness (a bit mean, that one), a dismal (ouch), and a despair (hey now!).

No one suggested The Gold Standard.

Economist Aaron Schiff suggested ‘a core of economists’. In economics as in English, a core means the central or more important part. Something vital. Economics goes a bit further to say a core is an outcome that can’t be beat. A core of economists is thus a group of economists that can’t be beat. The Initiative’s economists were very flattered by that suggestion, but it’s whether we’re achieving our cause of lifting and guiding public debate that matters most.

We thought a banking executive (who will have also heard every name under the sun about his own profession) came up with the best: ‘an invisible handful of economists’. A hand to lift and guide public debate.
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