Past event: 2016 Public Finance Debates

An overview of the 2016 Public Finance Debates.

The Chair in Public Finance and the Government Economics Network had the pleasure of hosting the first debate of the 2016 debate series on 28 September 2016.

Debate 1: Big data in policy advice: big opportunity or big risk?  

In the absence of detailed knowledge of individuals’ circumstances, the traditional approach to policy targeting has often been to target the policy as widely to ensure that all those who might be eligible are reached. But now ‘big data’ is providing unique opportunities to identify individual characteristics, so radically improving our ability to target those most in need. But what are the risks? Some might argue that while big data can provide a more detailed picture of targeted individuals, it focuses policy on the symptoms, not the causes, of their condition.

Debate organisers allocated positions for the two speakers in advance of the debate. Speaking for the motion was Dr Simon Wakeman, Principal Advisor for the Social Investment Unit, who argues in favour of using ‘Big’ Data and the push for agencies to use data better to predict demand for services. Dr Peer Skov, Economics Lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, countered this, noting that the Big Data approach to policy is too narrow, and all-too-readily misidentifies causal factors important for policy evaluation. Mark Sowden, Deputy Government Statistician, Statistics New Zealand, closed the debate and facilitated the Q&A session with the audience. Both speakers presented strong cases and, perhaps surprisingly, the majority voted against the motion, implying that they were more concerned about the risks of Big data than welcoming the opportunities it provides.

Thank you to all of those who were able to attend and participated in the debate.