Earlier this month, the McGuinness Institute argued for what they're calling Demarcation Zones for policy trials. Their formulation differs a bit from what we at the Initiative proposed in 2015, but the core idea is similar: let local communities take on additional devolved powers and see what policy variants seem to work better in which places.
I go through some of the differences in last week's print-edition NBR column. Here's a snippet of the piece:
Trialling policy at a local level can make a lot of sense. Not only does it let policy be more sensitive to local conditions, it also helps central government figure out what kinds of policies might work in a broader rollout. But it will always be tempting for central government to use local zones as a way of funnelling benefits to electorally sensitive areas instead. Just imagine what could have been in a Northland special economic zone proposal at the time of 2015’s by-election.You should subscribe to the NBR. But we do have an ungated version here.
We worried about this problem in developing the Initiative’s Special Economic Zones proposal in 2015. The worst thing that can happen with a policy proposal is not that it is ignored but that it turns into a nightmarish hall-of-mirrors distortion of the original vision.
Even leaving aside crass electorally driven measures, being able to regionally target policies could provide other dangerous temptations to a micromanaging central government. Imagine a tax concession zone for a three-block area in downtown Wellington to boost the IT industry. Or a zone with special depreciation rules to help ensure an irrigation project makes it over the line. Good policy provides a general framework that lets winners emerge, rather than picking them at the outset.
But there is a way of telling whether a proposed zone is a policy trial or something less laudable. Policy trials, if they are successful, should be able to be rolled more broadly. But projects that channel benefits to electorally sensitive areas or that try to pick winners cannot be.
And so we argued that policy measures shown to be successful in any area should be available to any other region wanting the same treatment. An inefficient tax concession zone to boost employment in one region would not put that big a dent in the government’s purse. Requiring that the same concession be available to all regions would make the policy too expensive to contemplate – unless it really were potentially to the broader good.
Localist approaches hold a lot of promise. Central government should welcome proposals that have the demonstrated support of local communities, which have taken programme evaluation seriously, and that could be taken up by other towns. Baking this kind of accountability into proposals helps give central government, and the rest of us, confidence that local government is ready to take up the challenge.