John_Myers

Founder at workingpolicy.com, londonyimby.org and yimbyalliance.org • personal blog on how to improve policy and government at ziggurat.substack.comtwitter.com/johnrmyers

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Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Thank you for your comment. I agree we could have said ‘many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have succeeded’. However, given our substantive analysis of the Bill, I think we would have ended up with the same concerns about its potential outcomes. In view of the impression that some people who do not work in policy or government seem to have that attempts to improve policy generally or always move things in the intended direction, we thought it helpful to highlight the risk of unintended consequences. The alternative formulation would not have made that point as clearly.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

I can’t speak for the Twitter author you mention but I think our comment about quangos was primarily intended to add a minor element of humour to lighten a very long piece. I apologize if that was a poor choice on our part. Quangos were extensively joked about in the old UK television series and book Yes Minister.

My personal view about the quango (the Commission) suggested in the Bill is that without substantial revision it risks doing net damage. I certainly agree that some forms of quango may be useful, although I think it is often difficult to design them to ensure that the benefits exceed the costs. It would be great if the next quango proposed generates much greater consensus that the proposal is likely to be net beneficial.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

I think it is likely that even if you and I can't come up with improvements (although I suspect we can), a broader number of people getting involved could improve on the core ideas – looking forward to working on it together!

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Thank you Nathan - this is extremely interesting. 

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

I have an open mind on that. I think it’s an empirical question and it depends partly on how it is done. I could envisage many circumstances where a mechanism allowing someone purportedly to speak for future generations could in fact harm those future generations.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Thank you, I think that’s very constructive.

Where I would slightly disagree is that I don’t agree that every mechanism to give future generations’ interests more of a voice need necessarily result in more costs or red tape for any change. It may be possible to construct mechanisms that give them more of a voice for positive change. (The analogy here would be street votes.) We could see the “three lines of defence” proposals as an example of that. I think it would be good to see if we can find more of those mechanisms.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Thank you Haydn. I agree about the base rate for PMBs. They can get attention from the Government –in particular as I think you know this one was designed by us to be acceptable to the Government, and the Secretary of State said that it was ‘cracking’ and that he was keen to ‘steal all of the ideas in it’. https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3047

So I recognize that general campaigning is also a valid use of PMBs in general.

As you know I’m very keen to work collaboratively on possible approaches to getting more longtermist perspectives in government.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Thank you Haydn! These are very constructive comments.

To respond briefly:

3. I am not primarily focused on what the Bill's intentions are, but on the overall likely outcomes from its presentation and enactment. In our view there is a substantial chance that the Bill as currently drafted would overall damage welfare if passed in its current form. We agree the chance of that happening is almost zero, but there may be future Bills. I have a weaker view on the effect of the Bill as a campaigning tool but I still have substantial concerns given the presence of a number of potentially harmful but potentially popular provisions in it. 

4. I too prefer for a non-partisan approach. However we think there is negligible chance of this Government supporting it – I understand the Government has indicated it does not support the Bill – and only a small chance of a future Conservative government supporting it. I think the Bill would need to be drastically revised to give it a good chance of support by a Conservative government.

5. As we said, I agree that something in the direction of the ‘three lines of defence’ approach to risks could be very helpful, and that it would be very helpful to work on future sector-specific approaches in other sectors and better forecasting and risk identification in general.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Many thanks for the thoughtful and constructive response. I agree with many of your comments.

(First, I note that our published text does not include the sentence you quoted:

We think the base rate is that most efforts to improve governance have ended in failure or worse

Instead it says this:

Ultimately, we think the base rate is that many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have ended in failure or worse. 

We agreed with your comments on that and amended accordingly before publishing. Thank you again for giving them.)

Responding to your two main points in reverse order:

This draft of the bill makes much more sense when you see it as a campaigning tool, a showcase of ideas. This is a private members bill (PMB). PMBs are primarily campaigning techniques to build support and spark debate. It will not be passed through parliament (in its current form).

1. We did not intend to criticize the Bill as a campaigning device. We intended to express doubts that it should be enacted, and it seems there is more consensus on that than we thought. We expressly said that we never meant to criticize anyone's actions. And we agree with you about the minimal likelihood of this particular Bill being enacted, although that does not prevent it being the basis of a subsequent bill, so it still matters what the Bill contains and whether those provisions should become law.

2. However, even as a campaigning device, it would be helpful to know what elements of the Bill have won support. Has it built more support for workable and beneficial measures, or for a range of populist measures that will be harmful? We do not have the data to judge but given the weight of the latter in the draft, I am concerned.

If the counterfactual to this Bill is no Bill, I think my view (with considerably lower confidence than on the enactment question) is that no Bill may on balance have been better, insofar as it may create or reinforce unhelpful Schelling points for damaging ideas. That relates to my doubts about the substantive theory of change:

None of the criticisms in the post really pertain to the core elements of the bill. The theory of change for the bill is: government doesn’t make long term plans > tell government to make long term plans (i.e. set a long term vision and track progress towards it) > then government will make long term plans. This approach has had research and thought put into it. 

Again, let me stress that I highly welcome the ends and I am keen to discuss more about how to achieve them. My sole concern is with this particular theory of change.

1. If we are looking at the Bill as legislation then what the ‘core elements of the bill’ are could have different meanings. In this regard we prefer to look at likely outcomes rather than intentions. There are many other elements of the Bill that we think would likely make the Bill net damaging to welfare if enacted as law.

2. I strongly support long term planning by the Government, so long as it is done with nearly enough epistemic humility. It is not true that the Government doesn't make long term plans. There are many sectors where the Government does make or has made long term plans. At present, they are often extraordinarily badly designed.

a. For example, since the 1930s the Government has planned in one way or another to try to push against economic gravity (agglomeration effects) to drive jobs away from higher productivity areas of the country, at enormous costs to welfare. I wrote a casual summary of some such attempts here

b. The planning system in general attempts to forecast ‘need’ and various other metrics in at least the medium term, and in the cases of some infrastructure for the long term. Those forecasts are often circular, not least because the population movements will partly depend upon the amount of housing and other infrastructure that gets built.

c. The negative effects caused by the bad design of the current planning system have, I estimate, probably damaged welfare per head by at least 10%, while increasing pollution and inequality, among many other problems, as my co-authors and I wrote about here.

d. The Government makes long term plans for infrastructure, of which HS2 is one of the largest examples. While I strongly support building infrastructure in general, I have profound concerns about whether HS2 itself is the best use of the many scores of billions of pounds that will be spent on it.

e. The Government makes long term plans for defence. But I have seen private estimates that the UK’s defence capabilities if attacked are vastly less strong than is assumed by the Government.

f. In relation to the specific institutions you name in the excerpt you quote, I agree IPA may have helped (although we need to do better: infrastructure planning in the UK in general is still worse than many other European countries). But the BoE has for decades provided banks with a range of implicit subsidies. As a result, the banks have eye-watering degrees of leverage and are still profoundly unstable, risky and rent-laden. The BoE has not ensured any plausible plans to resolve major banks in the event of a financial crisis to avoid the necessity of yet another bailout to prevent the collapse of the financial system. 

Insofar as the institutions you mention have been helpful, it is worth noting that they are sector-specific. I think there is substantial risk that any general, non-sector-specific Government long-term plans may end up having effects as disastrous as those of the Barlow Report.

So in general I think the Government as currently made up seems (a) lacking in epistemic humility, (b) not good at picking tractable areas in which to make long term plans, and (c) frequently incapable of competently executing on them. 

Therefore I think that getting the Government as currently formed to select and act on long term plans, unless the subjects of those long term plans are very carefully guided, could be highly damaging to the welfare of future generations, at least if we look at the long term plans that it has previously created and executed upon that have had the most economic impact over the last 50 years.

So I think there is considerable risk that wellbeing goals set through public consultation will be unattainable or even outright damaging. Goals set by UK governments often seem to be pure responses to short-term electoral or populist incentives and frequently are not even as rational as that.

Response to specific points

I agree that the analysis done in advance of the Bill has been thoughtful and I welcome it. However I think we need to go much deeper to get any confidence about likely outcomes. Mushtaq Khan might be a good place to start in analysing what would be workable given existing UK institutions, and I think his papers illustrate the depth of analysis that it would be useful to have. I welcome your interest in sector-specific approaches and I think there is scope for an enormous amount of progress here. 

Conclusion

I would welcome trials of this approach, despite many historically disastrous attempts at long term planning by the UK Government, but the proposals for long term planning in this Bill seem to be a proposal for implementation rather than a trial. I would prefer a trial to be conducted on some selective basis so that we can measure the counterfactual. We could try selecting different sectors, or we could try imposing such requirements on a random selection of mayors, for example. We might also do more in depth study of the many disastrous attempts at long-term planning that the UK Government has previously undertaken, and attempt to build in legislative safeguards against as many of those cases as possible before seeking implementation.  But, as I said above, I think a sectoral approach to getting more long-term perspectives and actions in government may be much more productive.

Again, I think you for all your work on this and for the constructive feedback, and I am pleased that we agree on many goals. I hope we can continue this discussion and would welcome collaboration.

Concerns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

It's an excellent question. Yes, I think we agree. In general I think sunlight can be a great disinfectant. If external validators' views were published then it would be easier to create pressure to improve the organisation that is doing bad work. We could also look at creating incentives for the organisation and individuals within the organisation to achieve better results as measured against the views of external validators.

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