News story 9th Jan 2017

Changing public policy discussion one poll at a time

Attention-grabbing sound bites may appear to dominate election issues across the globe. However, a move to poll top economists on public policy issues is working to kick-start informed discussion.

Economics forum

The ESA Monash Forum monthly poll is a platform designed to harness the collective wisdom of Australia’s leading economists on a wide range of issues from the effect of a Donald Trump presidency on Australia, the pace of budget repair, penalty rates reform to whether it is unethical for governments to use behavioural economics to ‘nudge’ citizens.

Each month the poll, a joint initiative between Monash Business School and the Economic Society of Australia (ESA), asks a panel of 48 of Australia’s top economists for their views on a topical public policy issue. Panel members respond by indicating whether they agree or disagree with the issue, identifying their level of confidence in their answer and providing a short explanation of their opinion.

“The platform that we’ve built is a new way of gauging what some people have called the ‘quiet consensus’ among economists in Australia,” says ESA Vice President of the Victorian Branch, Tom Chan. “The platform helps to counter-balance uninformed public debate or debate that is skewed by a few vocal commentators.”

The ESA Monash Forum launched in late 2015 with the aim of injecting expert economic thinking into topical policy debates in Australia and to promote economics as a multi-faceted, applied way of thinking. It was inspired  by the public policy polling platform run by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which polls leading US economists on a variety of topics. The initiative recently launched a European chapter.

The European panel consists of 50 economists from 27 major universities. The panel’s initial poll covers six topics relevant to the region including the effects of tax competition, privatisation in Eastern Europe and Brexit.

Around 16 Australian universities are represented on the ESA’s National Economc Panel.  Mr Chan says that while the majority of the panellists are academics the polling platform is designed for a broader public audience. Questions focus on one issue and are framed to encourage the experts to reveal where they stand –  in terms of whether they strongly agree, agree, are uncertain, disagree or strongly disagree – on a particular proposition.

The poll enables us to test what our peers are thinking and actually establish what the consensus is, rather than what we imagine it to be.

Tom Chan

ESA Vice President, Victorian Branch

The latest poll, its 14th since launch, focused on problem gambling. Other topics have included whether the total benefit of migration outweigh the costs; and “whether Australia’s economic growth will benefit more from spending on education or business tax cuts” which tested the level of support among the National Economic Panel for the respective election platforms of the two major parties in the last Federal election.

In that poll, launched in the lead up to the Federal election, over 60% of the 30 panel respondents agreed that education trumped tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the November poll, released on the eve of the US Presidential election, saw 83% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement that “Hillary Clinton is likely to be the superior US presidential candidate for the Australian economy and for Australia”.

He says the comments from the polls are often longer and more detailed than they originally expected. This provides more depth to the raw poll results, allowing readers to look further at what might be driving the majority and minority opinions expressed. On average, around 60% of panellists respond to each poll. Questions are determined through crowd sourcing via an online form, workshopping with members of the ESA members, panellists and other collaborators.

The ESA is currently addressing the gender balance of its National Economic Panel and is in the process of inviting more female economists to join it. It is intended that in 2017 there will be a larger panel with a higher proportion of female economists.

There are also future opportunities to expand the reach of the poll.

“There are a lot of potential spin-offs once you have the data,” says Mr Chan. He says the poll may generate events to further explore some of the issues and perspectives raised. The same poll questions can also be used to test and compare the views of different groups.

For example, Chicago Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets has prompted peer-reviewed journal articles based on the results of the polls, exploring whether expert economists think differently to the average American.

The ESA Monash December 2015 ‘Christmas’ poll – on whether giving specific presents is less efficient than cash – used the same question put before the American panel of expert economists in a previous year. A comparison of the results suggested that ‘the spirit of the Grinch is much less prevalent among our Australian respondents!’

“In the future we may want to do a joint poll with the United States and Europe on a foreign policy topic – say, a specific free trade agreement – and see how different experts from different continents view the same issue,” says Mr Chan.

By Elizabeth Byrne