An Office of Policy Responsibility

From 1972 until 1994 (when it was killed off by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the first Republican majority in the House of Representatives for four decades), the Office of Technology Assessment played a significant role by providing disinterested and detailed analyses of technological change to the US government.

“The Office of Technology Assessment occupied a unique role among the Congressional information agencies. … Through eleven Congressional sessions, OTA became a key resource for Congressional members and staff confronting technological issues in crafting public policy. Its existence brought a healthy balance to the analytical resources available to the executive and legislative branches of government.”

The dismantling of the OTA was “a crucial turning away from the idea of valuing, promoting and relying on the power of critical thought as a key ingredient in the process of self-governing”

In order to restore critical thinking and evidence to the heart of UK government, we should create an “Office of Policy Responsibility” derived from the purpose of the OTA.  The original US legislation could be borrowed with a few amendments (such as striking out the term technology. Something like this …

“The basic function of the Office shall be to provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the Government policies and to develop other coordinate information which may assist Parliament and the public. In carrying out such function, the Office shall:
1.identify existing or probable impacts of government policy;
2.where possible, ascertain cause-and-effect relationships;
3.identify alternative methods of implementing specific programs;
4.identify alternative programs for achieving requisite goals;
5. make estimates and comparisons of the impacts of alternative methods and programs;
6.present findings of completed analyses to the appropriate legislative authorities and to the public;
7. identify areas where additional research or data collection is required to provide adequate support for the assessments and estimates described in paragraph (1) through (5) of this subsection; and
8. undertake such additional associated activities as the appropriate authorities specified [] may direct.”

The Office of Policy Responsibility would be an independent, publicly accountable body working closely with a reinvigorated Office for National Statistics to rigorously analyse, test, evaluate, and report on all government policy and proposed legislation; and to prevent legislation proceeding which did not meet its agreed objectives. It could perhaps replace the House of Lords, so demonstrably ineffective and in large part corruptible – as the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 proved.

The mission statement of this new Office would be to protect the public from inefficient or ineffective legislation, and to force governments to produce legislation which would – at a minimum – meet SMART objectives. Because it made all data public, it would discourage Minister’s answers as a set of fictional or badly-framed data.

The new Office would challenge all government objectives and demand measurable precision. It would oversee pilots and tests, and analyse realisation of benefits.

We urgently need information, evidence, and critical thinking to select and support government policy; and a complete change from dogma to practical application.  Policies based uncritically upon false assumptions (such as any derived from neoclassical economics) would be revealed and would be easier to block.

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