Want better Government? Start with the incentives shaping voters
Incentives matter, in politics, business or even in our personal lives. They shape our thinking, consciously or unconsciously, and drive our decision making. And in politics and business the patterns of behaviour are more alike than many might realise.
Price and profit incentivise consumers and entrepreneurs respectively, candidates plus their policies and being in government play the same role for voters and political parties.
In business it is pretty obvious, reduce price and – broadly – increase demand, grow market share and see your profits increase. The relationships are similar, but not quite as straightforward in politics. And, when it comes to incentives in Irish politics they really are skewed if stable government, coherent policies and long term planning are the desired outcome.
One could speak ad nauseum about the reasons that the Irish electoral system’s incentives are skewed the way they are – our PR STV electoral system, historical absence of a left/right divide, a media landscape that, with the explosion of social media, gives news stories the life cycle of a mayfly with a bad cold – but for now let’s just recognise that voters and parties respond to these incentives and they are unlikely to change before the next election.
This means that local issues tend to come first, national second; populist positions rather than evidence based policies are preferred and the sharp put down or witty aside will always get airtime while boring old policy struggles for oxygen. So, the campaign for the local hospital service will dominate national politics, a help to buy scheme gets shoe horned in to a substantive and coherent plan to address a basic supply/demand challenge in housing and water is suddenly to be free for all.
And, be sure, the local hospital campaigners, the aspirant first time buyer and the person that passionately believes that free water is a civil right are all acting absolutely rationally in taking to the streets, signing petitions and contacting radio stations. They know that because the way our incentives work there is a decent chance that a squeeze can be put on the system.
In the four general elections I’ve worked on one apparent outlier to this pattern was in 2011. In exit polls on the day voters are asked which is more important in deciding how to vote; a candidate to look after the constituency, a set of Ministers, the policies of the parties and choosing a Taoiseach. Everyone in politics knows this question and the usual hierarchy – local candidate miles ahead, policies then Ministers next and choice of Taoiseach, surprising for many maybe, a distant fourth. In 2011 however, the hierarchy changed. ‘Policies’ jumped by 70% from its 2007 level and came top of the list. ‘Local candidates’ retained its importance but ‘Policies’ were now more important. In 2016 the positions were reversed again and ‘local candidates’ easily outscored ‘policies’.
So, it would appear that the only time that policies actually mattered more than personalities and local concerns was when Ireland was trying to extricate itself from the worst economic collapse in its history. The scale of the crash changed our priorities and our incentives.
The outcome of the most recent election and the government formed is a response, in part at least, to the normal incentives in Irish politics reasserting themselves.
Now, we could have an election within months – though I think it will be measured in years – and what will happen then? One option is for a version of most elections – with 2011 as an outlier – where parties get sucked in to a battle of ‘offers’ based on money that isn’t yet earned and try to persuade the electorate that they care more or understand better the problems facing the country.
And as long as the public debate is framed in terms of who cares more, rather than who has the best plans and policies, it is the very people that everyone professes to care most about that will be the ones to suffer.
If the next election plays out against this type of background it brings the real prospect of a similar outcome to the last election. Parties revert to type and voters hedge their bets with votes for single issue parties, localised protest parties and independents. Any combination might end up in government, what they’d do there could take months to emerge.
Another option is that a party or Leader could try to change the incentives. Encourage the voter to change their voting behaviour and break with old habits. It requires a compelling new proposition – it might even be called the vision thing – to persuade the electorate that, as in 2011, the plans that they have for the country are more important than the narrow issues that usually dictate the agenda and shape voting patterns.
We have a good idea of the runners and riders; Michael Martin aiming to build on Fianna Fail’s result in February, Brendan Howlin working to bring Labour back from a disproportionate defeat, Gerry Adams still at the helm for Sinn Fein and a slew of smaller parties playing to narrower audiences and hoping to hold the balance of power.
And it looks like Fine Gael will have a new leader by the time the country comes to vote again. Whoever succeeds Enda Kenny will have a tough job ahead of them. Not only will they have to find deep wells of energy, judgment, patience and absolute resolve about the huge job ahead, if they are to change the patterns of voter behaviour they will have to change the incentives that drive the votes. And that’s where the vision, the plans and absolute conviction that one can deliver those plans come in.
If it were an easy task, everyone would do it. But it isn’t, and very few even try. Many doubted, even ridiculed, Kenny when he boldly set out to rebuild his Party and then later the country. However, the challenge remains brutally simple for whichever Party leader aspires to high office – if you want better government, problem solving government you have to change the incentives that shape voter behaviour.
No easy task. Time will tell who, if anyone, wants to take it on.
This article first appeared in the Irish Independent on October 6th, 2016.