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Policy by focus group

Written By: - Date published: 1:19 pm, August 15th, 2008 - 13 comments
Categories: youtube - Tags: ,

Colin Espiner on the Nats’ energy policy:

…National’s energy policy is conservative and lacking in new ideas… What it has delivered is a short-term, pragmatic policy lacking in vision. But unlike Labour, it is probably a policy in step with current public opinion.

Maybe these kinds of flaccid policy statements are inevitable when you: (a) painstakingly sterilise your publicly released policy for traces of your ideological DNA and (b) attempt to command majority support of the electorate by tightly tailoring policy to satisfy their desires.

But is it any way to run a country?

The two minute clip below from the BBC series “The Century of the Self” puts it perfectly. We’ve posted on it before here. All four full episodes can be found here on Google video.

Ps. Check out the “Ambitions for Britain” imagery at the start of the clip. Look familiar?

13 comments on “Policy by focus group”

  1. Anita 1

    I reckon Theo’s focus groups are one of the best bits of The Hollowmen, well along with Warren’s powerpoints.

    I fear both are pretty accurate though.

  2. outofbed 2

    As a Green I am disgusted by Nationals Energy and RMA policies
    They are a joke
    This weekend Nick Smith will be at Ecofest Nelson on a stall ‘greenwashing’ as per usual
    I intend to give him heaps

  3. all_your_base – Shock, horror. Those nasty tories use focus groups. Big deal, so does Labour; so does pretty much every party.

    It’s your birthday mate; lighten up, not everything has to be part of the VRWC!

  4. Rex Widerstrom 4

    Urgh the guy speaking is out of sync… that’s lke nails on a blackboard to someone who makes video *shudders* However, after closing one eye and concentrating mainly on the sound…

    This raises a much larger question than the Nat’s energy policy. There’s a lot of people involved in some way in politics – myself included – who’d like to see the process become vastly more democratic.

    I’ve always thought focus groups were a nonsense – far too small a sample size to get decent feeback on ideas, though sometimes good for brainstorming new ideas that wouldn’t occur to people too steeped in poltical traditions.

    But I’ve also been a vocal supporter of referenda, at one point campaigning very hard for them to be held via electronic means so as to make them less expensive and thus more frequent.

    Without writing an entire tome as a blog comment, in short I’ve got a great deal of confidence in what has become known as “the wisdom of crowds”, and a very strong belief that people have the right to as much input into the process as can reasonably be afforded them.

    But as this series admirably shows (I wish the networks would run it every election year) this philosophy can go horribly wrong.

    So what is a “reasonable” level of public participation in the political process? How much should politicians lead and to what extent should they follow?

    I think this is a national discussion we need to have… maybe as part of any debate around retention of MMP?

    But in the meantime I’ll be interested to read anybody else’s thoughts on the matter…

  5. all_your_base 5

    Inventory2 – it’d be a criticim of Labour too if I thought that’s what they based their policy on. I don’t think you can have it both ways though – Labour is frequently accused of having pursued policy that was unpopular but principled – surely this distinguishes them from a party that’s singular focus is re-election by keeping its real intentions under wraps and dropping the rest of its policy out of the ass end of focus groups. I think the clip also does a great job of explaining why Key is so vulnerable to Labour’s accusations of shallowness and slipperiness.

  6. insider 6

    Hmmm whatever happened to closing the gaps?

    Carbon neutral?

    Top half of the OECD?

    Tax cuts?

    No focus groups involved there of course.

  7. all_your_base 7

    Sorry insider, I’ve never been great at sarcasm. What’s your point?

  8. naughtybynature 8

    attempt to command majority support of the electorate by tightly tailoring policy to satisfy their desires

    Sounds quite democratic to me. After all they are our elected REPRESENTATIVES their to REPRESENT the views of those that elect them.

  9. Ari 9

    Rex- electronic referenda would discriminate against the poor and introduce self-selection to votes. (ie. it’s less likely everyone would always vote, and thus votes would be disproportionately effected by vocal minorities) I’m all for more representation, but I think referenda have their own issues too, and we should be wary of just thinking they’re some sort of magic bullet.

    Naughtybynature- which is okay, to a degree, if:
    a) The politicians genuinely intend to do that and we feel we can trust them.
    b) We trust public opinion to come up with the correct answer on every issue.

    Whether you trust the nats or not, the problem is that the public can be wrong. We can disagree with each other. Sometimes the minority report is right- especially on matters that effect minorities more than the majority. This is why generally people expect a political party to run on a set of principles, and implement policies that interpret those principles in a practical way. This way, we know in advance how the party will react, they don’t rely on polls and swings in public opinion for validation, and they can implement policy quickly and without consultation where necessary.

    Generally, people who behave the way you propose are called “populists”. It’s actually a frequent critique of Peter Dunne, for instance. The problem with populists is that while they may promise what you want, they can’t interpret it very well, and they often make mistakes doing so. It’s far better to vote for someone (or some Party) whose principles genuinely align with your own, who is likely to fully understand what you believe in and act from similar justifications and with similar results to you.

  10. Rex Widerstrom 10

    Ari: I didn’t want to thread-jack too much (and if you get me started on e-democracy you’ll end up in a coma 🙂 ) but when I was Director of the NZ Electronic Electoral Trial one of the major concerns we had was parity of access. All sorts of alternatives were explored.

    Provided each voter was prepared to have a unique identifier (and admittedly that in itself raises issues) to avoid multiple voting then the technical boffins told me that it could conceivably be done securely via telephone (“Press 1 to impeach Winston…” 😉 ) and even via bank ATMs! And that was back in the last century (1999 to be exact).

    So it wouldn’t be restricted to those with a dual core processor and an ADSL 2+ connection.

    But I agree there’s issues round the topic… issues I’d love to see debated at a national conference on NZ’s constitution and political system.

  11. randal 11

    what happened to reflection and sober and considered judgement..the last post seeemed to be all about rabble rousing and kneejerk reactions. if you want idealism get a plaster copy of the venus de milo and try and sculpt some new arms

  12. Pascal's bookie 12

    Rex, I’m sympathetic to the wisdom of crowds idea, but it always reminds me of the Charles Mackay quote that men go mad in herds but only come to their senses one by one.

    I think that direct democracy is a great idea for small things, and I can’t say where the line is, but for me it stops somewhere short of the nation state level. (I know I know, bloody elitist.)

    In short I think we elect people to exercise their judgement.

    In long, I think we elect them to be the top bureaucrats, not Leaders of The Nation. The government is not the Nation, it is just the thing the Nation uses to keep things chugging along. Representative democracy has proven itself to be a pretty damn good way of doing that.

    The thing about government is that it needs, ultimately, to hold a lot of power. What the government says, goes. This is ok as long as we have free regular elections. That way any particular govt has no power at all other than what the electorate, in it’s collective wisdom, gives them. I think that this almost paradoxical nature of the representative govt is superior to direct democracy in that it is the only way to safeguard against the frequent stupidity and bigotry of crowds.

    If we say that a properly run vox pop trumps the will of parliament, it’s all on. Especially I think today with highly sophisticated direct marketing techniques and ad campaigns designed by psychologists to hit you straight in the amygdala.

    Personally, if the vote was scheduled at the right time, I might have voted for those french terrorists to have their heads delivered to their governments embassy. I’m not sure that would have been wise, just, moral or in our best interest. But it sure would have felt good to vote for it in a secret ballot.

    This is getting too long, and I know you are not suggesting direct democracy replace parliament, but one more problem I would have with the idea is about accountability. In a binding referenda no one is accountable for what happens. ‘It was the people what done it.’

    None of which is to say that I think there is no place for many more referenda. Best way of finding out what the Nation is saying at any point in time. Which is a good thing to know.

    2c devils advocate etc.

  13. Rex Widerstrom 13

    Pascal’s bookie: Heh, that Mackay quote’s a keeper… hadn’t heard that one before. That’s two things I’ve picked up via The Standard today (the other was the excellent series a_y_b linked to – thanks for that a_y_b, I’m now watching the whole series via Google and seeing if I can get a DVD version).

    The problem with the “we can vote them out every three years” argument is that governments in NZ are so terribly conservative. To cite but one instance, I assumed – as I think did many other people – that one of the first actions of the incoming Labour government would reverse, or at least ameliorate the worst effects of, National’s benefit cuts. I honestly don’t know why it is that changing governments doesn’t effect more change – at least to the extent that one would expect to those things which incoming governments railed against (as opposed to pro-forma oppossing) when in Opposition. Perhaps we’re a timid lot.

    I think the question of our voting to execute the French spies is a bit of a red herring, since we’d have first have to have vote to restore capital punishment, surely? 😉

    Yes, these comments get so long no one can be bothered reading them, alas (to be fair I did give Ari warning of an impending coma) which is why I’d like to see a widespread debate on this and related topics at some sort of summit. Then we could bore people in person 😀

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