05 February 2010

Opening Our Eyes to the Tilted Playing-Field

One of the subtlest ways of gaming the system is to hack the system before you even play - for example, by building in a bias that means your particular approach is given a natural advantage. That this goes on, is nothing new; that it's happened at the heart of the European Union is profoundly disturbing. Here's the summary of what's now been discovered:

These findings suggest that BAT [British American Tobacco] and its corporate allies have fundamentally altered the way in which EU policy is made by ensuring that all significant EU policy decisions have to be assessed using a business-orientated IA [Impact assessment]. As the authors note, this situation increases the likelihood that the EU will produce policies that favor big business rather than the health of its citizens. Furthermore, these findings suggest that by establishing a network of other industries to help in lobbying for EU Treaty changes, BAT was able to distance itself from the push to establish a business-orientated IA to the extent that Commission officials were unaware of the involvement of the tobacco industry in campaigns for IA. Thus, in future, to safeguard public health, policymakers and public-health groups must pay more attention to corporate efforts to shape decision-making processes. In addition, public-health groups must take account of the ways in which IA can be used to undermine as well as support effective public-health policies and they must collaborate more closely in their efforts to ensure effective national and international policy.

A number of lessons need to be learned from this.

First, that if you want a system to produce fair results, you need to ensure that its framing is fair. Secondly, full transparency is imperative, especially about the relationships between those who are lobbying for changes to a system. Basically, you just can't have too much openness when it comes to setting key policy like Impact assessment.

This is an incredibly important - and impressive - paper, with huge implications for many areas. One that springs to mind is that of environmental protection. Given that the framing of Impact assessments is biased in favour of business and financial issues, it's not hard to see that other viewpoints - for example of examining the implications for animal and plant life, or of the various commons impacted - will receive pretty short shrift. It's also an argument for the economics of externalities to be developed more so that they can be brought into the equation when such one-side reviews are being conducted.

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