Which are the best performing government departments (2014/5 update)

In 2013 and 2014 I blogged about the best-performing government departments, judged by the traffic light ratings of the Major Projects Authority.

This year’s report is now out. Here’s a table of the average score by department. I’ve collapsed the distinction between capital and non-capital projects in the Department of Health.


Dept 2012 2013 2014 Change
HMT 2.5 3.0 5.0 2.0
NS& I 2.0 5.0 5.0 0.0
DfID 4.0 3.0 4.0 1.0
ONS 2.8 3.4 4.0 0.6
HMRC 3.7 3.8 4.0 0.3
CO 3.2 2.9 3.6 0.7
FCO 3.7 3.4 3.5 0.1
DfT 3.5 3.3 3.4 0.2
MoJ 3.5 3.3 3.3 -0.1
HO 3.4 3.2 3.3 0.1
DECC 5.0 3.5 3.2 -0.3
DCMS 2.8 3.2 3.2 0.0
MOD 3.5 3.2 3.2 0.0
BIS 3.5 3.5 3.1 -0.3
DEFRA 3.5 3.0 3.0 0.0
DfE 3.5 3.5 3.0 -0.5
DCLG 3.3 3.7 3.0 -0.7
DoH 3.7 3.0 3.0 0.0
DWP 3.3 3.4 2.9 -0.5

Congratulations to big improvers HMT and DfID; commiserations to laggards DCLG and DWP.

P.S. At the risk of seeming churlish, the MPA release is kind of annoying. Instead of giving variables along the columns, and projects along the rows, the data is transposed. It’s either a childish plot to prevent people from sorting and filtering, or… Well, if it’s not for that reason I’m at a loss to know what purpose it might serve.

Is Syriza defending pensioners because they turn out to vote?

The Greek government has been extremely reluctant to countenance changes to the pension system in its negotiations with its creditors.

When Ferdi Giugliano noted that defence of pensioners seemed to be politically transversal, it was quickly pointed out to him that there was an obvious reason why governments defend pensions: older people vote, and vote often.

This obvious answer seems wrong to be, at least for Greece and at least for the last election for which I have data.

Here’s a graph showing the smoothed rate of turnout as a function of age, in the May 2012 election.


As you can see, turnout peaks at age 45, before declining. This is a very different picture to most other countries.

The answer, in this case, is most likely a generation effect. After the rule of the colonels, the first democratic elections in Greece were in 1974. Assuming that the voting age has stayed the same since, the first generation to vote would have been born in 1956, and would be 56 at the time of the May 2012 election. Anyone older would have come of age, politically speaking, during a non-democratic regime. We know that voting is habit forming, and so this 55+ cohort would be less likely to vote than the 45-55 cohort.

I am, of course, happy to be proved wrong by those with data on the 2015 election — or indeed those who have a better handle on the CSES data I used (see below).

Technical: I used CSES data to create this graph. You can see the code I used to import the graph at github. Most of the lines of code deal with importing the CSES data, which — inexplicably — is released as a fixed-width file.

Strategy-proofing the Labour nomination process isn’t possible

tl;dr version: you can’t stop people playing silly buggers when nominating candidates

The process of nominating candidates for the leadership of the Labour party seems to have left many people disgruntled — over and above the normal or background level of disgruntlement in the party.

A key source of dissatisfaction is the way in which MPs have used their nominations. In particular, some people are upset that MPs have nominated candidates who are not their most-preferred candidate for the leadership of the party. This is a common criticism of those MPs who have nominated Jeremy Corbyn (who has disavowed the practice).

This kind of voting isn’t necessarily insincere, or strategic, or evidence of bad faith. MPs have preferences about the type of leadership contest as well as the outcome of that contest. MPs may wish to see a contest with at least one female candidate, or at least one ethnic minority candidate. Sometimes these process preferences can trump preferences regarding the outcome. This certainly happened in 2010, when Diane Abbott was nominated by some Miliband (David) supporting MPs precisely so that the leadership contest would not be fought by four white men.

But strategic voting is certainly present. One trivial example from the deputy leadership ballot demonstrates this: Rushanara Ali’s most preferred candidate for deputy leader is Rushanara Ali; but given that she had too few nominations, she strategically nominated Ben Bradshaw.

I find the strategy element of nominations in the leadership contest harder to understand. The most intuitive form of strategy comes in the form of a quid pro quo — if your supporters nominate me, I’ll ask my supporters to give their second preferences to you later.

Yet most work on strategic nomination doesn’t look at quid pro quos, but at what we might call spoiler effects, often involving one side of the spectrum strategically nominating from the other end of the spectrum. In his book Securities against Misrule, Jon Elster gives a useful (but rather scurrilous) example from the French presidential election of 2002:

“It is possible – but unproven – that the 2002 election of Jacques Chirac as President was due to the strategic withdrawal of one candidate (Charles Pasqua) and by strategic action to prevent the withdrawal of another (Christiane Taubira). The election used the “two-past-the-post” system… given the near-certainty that the Far Right candidate (Jean Marie Le Pen) would obtain 15-20 percent of the vote, the system gave the major candidates on the Right (Chirac) and on the Left (Lionel Jospin) an incentive to encourage the proliferation of candidates in the other camp (to reduce the oponent’s chances of beating Le Pen) and reduce the number of candidates in his own (to increase his chances of beating him. It is possible that Chirac prevented Jospin from getting to the second round… by exploiting this possibility [since it was rumoured that Chirac’s party helped to finance Taubira’s campaign]”

Two-round systems are more vulnerable to strategic nomination than the Alternative Vote system used in the leadership election proper. If Corbyn is on the ballot, he’s likely to be eliminated in the first two rounds of voting, and so may not be a very durable spoiler. In any event, this kind of strategic nomination sits uneasily with quid pro quo exchanges. The ideological distances are too far to span.

More generally, it’s unsurprising that the system Labour uses should give rise to strategic voting. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we can think of the system of nominations as an electoral system in itself, similar to the single non-transferable vote system used in Puerto Rico and previously in Japan. Like SNTV, each voter can express one preference (their nomination), and there are multiple “winners” (who go on to become leadership candidates). Unlike SNTV, the number of winners is not fixed in advance: any candidate who gets over the quota can become a candidate.

Just as in SNTV, strategic considerations are widespread. Factions within the party have to ensure that their votes are not spread too thinly. In extremis, a faction within the party might find it has nominated three candidates, each of whom has the support of 20 MPs, all of whom fail to become candidates (similar to the position of a centre-right [Blairite?] grouping in the deputy leadership election before Rushanara Ali’s decision to drop out).

If strategic voting, or systems which encourage it, are A Bad Thing, then surely the answer is to find some electoral system for selecting multiple winners which is immune to strategic considerations of this kind?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that such a system exists. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite and Duggan-Schwartz theorems show that single and multiple-winner electoral systems respectively are always susceptible to voters misrepresenting their preferences.

As such, there is no “institutional” fix for removing strategic voting in nomination. The only solution is to remit the problem to the broader party electorate, where tactical manoeuvring may be less visible, harder to organize, and in any case less likely to provide lobby-fodder. This can be done by drastically lowering thresholds for nomination. Comparatively, the thresholds for candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats are far lower — and in the case of the Liberal Democrats, the thresholds are now so low that strategic considerations are entirely absent. With a threshold of 0.8 MPs, any leadership candidate need only convince themselves that they are the best person for the job.

Of course, lower thresholds have their own problems. Modulo the distribution of opinion within a party, they’re likely to lead to more candidates with extreme positions. But with nomination systems, as with most things, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Does the #Brexit referendum franchise matter?

The government has announced that EU citizens will not be eligible to vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. However, because the electoral roll will be the same as that used in the general election, citizens of certain Commonwealth countries will be able to vote.

The question about who ought to be able to vote in a referendum like this is a normative one. From what I can tell, normative theorists, often building on the "all affected interests" principle, tend to support broader franchises, and would typically support extending the franchise to EU citizens. Certainly, I’m not aware of any principled argument why Maltese citizens should be able to vote but Greeks shouldn’t.

There is, however, a separate empirical question: would extension of the franchise make any difference to the outcome?

According to wave 4 of the British Election Study (fieldwork: March 2015), 50.2 percent of British citizens supported Britain staying in the EU.

In that same survey, 81.5 percent of EU citizens resident in the UK supported Britain staying in the EU.

According to the latest ONS Population by Country of Birth and Nationality Report, there are 57678 thousand resident Britons, and 2507 thousand resident EU citizens, or roughly 23 British citizens for every EU citizen.

If we assume that the two groups vote at similar rates,1 the difference between a Britons-only referendum and a Britons-plus-EU-citizens referendum is the difference between:

  • 50.2%
  • (57678)/(57678+2507) * 50.2 + (2507)/(57678+2507) * 81.5, or 51.5%

Therefore the votes of EU citizens, although they will make Brexit less likely, will only matter in a very close referendum. The choice of electoral roll is thus in a very real sense a matter of principle rather than political practice.

  1. This assumption is likely false. On the one hand, a slightly greater proportion of EU citizens resident will be eligible to vote in virtue of being over 18. On the other hand, turnout amongst the eligible is likely to be lower amongst EU citizens. EU citizens were eligible to vote in the Scottish independence referendum — but whilst 90.5% of British respondents said that it was "very likely" that they would vote, only 63% of EU respondents said the same.

Did Labour lose because it was too left-wing?

A number of commentators have suggested that Labour lost the election because it was too left-wing — or, what is equivalent, enough commentators have suggested this as to make its denial necessary for some.

Usually, this is accompanied by an implicit invocation of median voter theorem (“elections are won from the centre”).

There’s just one problem with these arguments: in the early part of the year, Labour was perceived to be closer to the median voter than was the Conservative party.

Wave 3 of the British Election Study asks respondents to position themselves on a left-right scale which runs from 1 to 11.

On this scale, the (weighted) median voter is at 6, equidistant from either end of the spectrum. For what it’s worth, the (weighted) mean is very slightly to the right of this position, at 6.21.

When asked to position the parties, the (weighted) mean position for Labour is 4.18, or 1.82 points to the left of the median voter.

The (weighted) mean position for the Conservative party is 8.67, or 2.67 points to the right of the median voter.

This does not mean that Labour’s positioning was not a contributory factor in the party’s defeat. Perhaps if Labour had been closer still to the median voter, it would have won more votes. But spatial politics and the median voter theorem alone can’t explain the party’s defeat. Other factors – like having a leader who is rated as competent — matter, and probably matter more. After all, if closeness to the median voter was the exclusive determinant of parties’ vote shares, we’d be basking in the bright new dawn of a Liberal Democrat government (weighted mean left-right position: 5.77).

P.S. This conclusion (which is similar to the conclusion that Ed Fieldhouse arrives at, and which would have pre-empted me writing this blogpost had I seen it earlier) seems robust to different survey weights. It’s possible that there are different scaling issues to do with respondents in different party systems, but these would have to be very severe to affect the conclusion. It’s also possible that this finding will change when the campaign wave of the BES is available.

A constituency poll by any other name?

ICM has just released a constituency poll of Sheffield Hallam. Before a spiral-of-silence adjustment, Nick Clegg is on 40%, and his Labour challenger Oliver Coppard is on 36%. These figures are based on responses from 336 individuals, and so have a margin of error of 5.3%.

This compares with a recent Lord Ashcroft poll, which showed Clegg on 36%, and Coppard on 38%, but without naming the candidates. These figures were based on responses from 733 individuals.

Given these numbers and their associated margin of error, it’s not clear to me that we can conclude much about the relative merits of naming candidates versus not naming candidates. Suppose Clegg wins by 38% to Coppard’s 37% — we would be none the wiser.

Of course, there are other reasons for thinking that constituency polls which name candidates should be more accurate than constituency polls which do not name candidates.

The argument for naming is simple: voters in ballot booths are given a list of names; polls estimate what happens in the ballot booth; therefore polls should use the same prompts found in the ballot booth.

The argument against naming is more complicated, and may trade (entirely on in part) on the survey mode.

Suppose you receive a phone call from a pollster. Being a frequent consumer of polls, you oblige. You are given a list of names, but the list is quite long. You can’t quite remember the name of the Labour candidate, but you’ve heard of that Nick Clegg. Unwilling to look foolish in the eyes of the interviewer, you say, “Clegg, he’s the one”.

In other words, naming candidates in phone surveys biases responses to the most well-known candidate.

This name recognition effect probably doesn’t make sense to people with strong party identification. But there are fewer and fewer such people around, and there’s a long history of public opinion research which suggests that public opinion doesn’t really exist outside of a particular measurement context.

Ideally, all parties which conducted named-candidate polls (I’m looking at you LibDems!) will release these polls after the election so that they can be compared to the nearest (in time) Ashcroft poll. Only then will we be able to get some idea of the relative accuracy of named versus unnamed candidate polls across a range of constituencies.

Comments welcome below!

The Rentoul Questions

John Rentoul has put together a very helpful flow-chart intended to help us navigate the thickets of post-electoral coalition formation.

In it, he asks a number of questions about different configurations of parties. I thought I’d try and indicate what the probabilities of these different configurations are, according to the forecasts from electionforecast.co.uk.

Q1: Have the Conservatives plus DUP and UKIP won 323 seats or more?

Very unlikely. The probability of these parties winning 323 seats or more is just 3%.

Q2: Have the Conservatives plus LibDems, DUP and UKIP won 323 seats or more?

Moderately unlikely. The probability of these parties winning 323 seats or more is almost one-third (32%).

Q3: Are the four parties on 321 or 322?

Very unlikely on its own (5%), although obviously this number can be added to the above number.

Q4: Have Labour plus the LibDems and SDLP won 323 seats or more?

Unlikely. The probability of these parties winning 323 seats or more is a little over 12%.

If you follow the most likely outcome at each branching point, these probabilities imply a minority Labour government, with a second election described as “possible”.

Incumbency matters in government formation

Suppose that the forecasts are right, and that the Conservatives will be the largest party in the next parliament, but that parties opposed to the Conservatives will have a majorityplurality.

If you want specific numbers, suppose you have the Conservatives on 283, and Labour + SNP + Plaid + Greens + SDLP on 270 + 47 + 4 + 1 + 3 = 325. Note that the SNP has to join with Labour to ensure that anti-Conservative block have a plurality.

In this situation, what does David Cameron do?

  • He might realize that he does not command the support of a majority in the Commons and resign, allowing the Queen to call on Ed Miliband to form a government.
  • Or, he might go the House and force a no-confidence vote, which (ex hypothesi) he will lose, allowing the Queen to call on Ed Miliband to form a government.

Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, it matters which route Cameron chooses.

If he resigns straight away, Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, and there is no constitutional requirement that a majority of the Commons expresses its confidence in the government. In other words (and here I disagree with Tom Louwerse), the United Kingdom is an example of negative parliamentarism.

If Cameron forces the Commons to vote his government down, then under the FTPA, the Commons must formally vote its confidence in a Miliband-led government (section 2(3)).

This means that the SNP would be forced to vote in favour of a Labour government, and could not merely abstain.

If Miliband then uses the debate before the confidence motion to lay out a fairly explicit policy programme, he could then use this as a stick with which to beat the SNP, arguing “you voted for it” whenever disagreement arose.

For the Conservatives, who seem hell-bent on linking Labour and the SNP, it might be useful to ensure that the SNP explicitly votes for a Labour government.

So if the forecasts are right, Cameron might have reason to go to the Commons only to be voted down.

Sunday polls tell us nothing about the impact of the “debates”

Polls for the Sunday newspapers will start coming out shortly.

Some will be tempted to interpret any changes in these polls as a consequence of Thursday’s “debates”.

That’s stupid. These polls can tell us almost nothing about the impact of these debates. Here’s why.

First, we know that not many people watched the debate.

Second, we know that relatively few of those who watched the debate were undecided. The ICM poll suggests that 8% of watchers fell into that category. I have no reason to believe that’s an under-estimate. Of those 8%, that same ICM poll said that 56% though Ed Miliband won the debate, 30% David Cameron.

Now, those numbers might be wrong — but that doesn’t materially affect the calculations that follow. Suppose, unrealistically, that all of the undecided voters decided on the basis of Thursday’s “debates”. That means Miliband has won 8% * 56% = 4.45% of the audience, and Cameron 8% * 30% = 2.4%.

That translates to 120,150 new voters for Miliband, and 64,800 new voters for Cameron.

How big are these numbers as a fraction of the voting population (approximately 30 million people)? 120k Miliband switchers equals 4/10ths of a percentage point; 65k Cameron switchers equals 1/5th of a percentage point.

It’s impossible accurately to detect changes this small unless you have huge, huge samples. A sample of 200,000 people might be enough.

Any got a Sunday poll with a sample of 200,000 people?


Thought not.

(PS: I’m open to counter-arguments in the style of Lazarsfeld).

Did the debates in 2010 increase political engagement?

British politics has reached an impression level of recursion. Broadcasters and politicians are now having a debate about debates – and, on some shows, debates about the debate about the debates.

These meta-debates feature a lot of cant, and a lot of bullshit. I mean that in the Frankfurtian sense: lots of people are making claims without particularly caring whether they are true or not. One (potentially) bullshit claim is the claim that the 2010 debates mattered for political engagement (see, for example, Adam Boulton’s tweet to this effect).

Whether or not the debates improved engagement is, of course, an empirical question. So I thought I’d dig out the 2010 http://bes2009-10.org/ panel data, to see whether the debates did in fact improve turnout.

The wrong way of proceeding is to look at

  1. stated turnout intention amongst people who watched the debates, and
  2. stated turnout intention amongst people who didn’t watch the debates,

and compare the two. People who watched the debates are weirdunusual: they care about politics. So they’re much more likely to turnout and vote.

A better way of proceeding is to look at

  1. stated turnout intention amongst people after the debates, minus
  2. stated turnout intention amongst people before the debates

and compare the differences between

  1. people who watched the debate and
  2. people who didn’t watch the debates

We can do this thanks to the design of the BES. There’s one variable which measures turnout intention in the pre-campaign survey (0-10 scale, where higher values indicate the respondent is almost certain to vote: mean value across respondents with values for both waves: 9.82 (SD: 2.51)), and one variable which measures turnout intention in the campaign survey (mean value: 5.17 (SD: 3.42)).

You’ll notice stated turnout intention is absurdly high in the pre-campaign period, because PEOPLE LIE. (Sorry, they respond inaccurately given a prevalent social desirability bias). But then, people lie about turnout all the freaking time, and that doesn’t stop people writing about it.

Again, we can’t just compare the change over time across these two groups. We’ve got to compare for people’s pre-existing levels of political interest, and other features. The way I do that is through exact matching – creating matched sets of people, who are alike in terms of

  • political interest in general
  • interest in this election
  • whether they’d been contacted by parties
  • whether they lived in a safe, ultra-safe, marginal, or ultra-marginal seat
  • whether they read a newspaper every day, sometimes, or not at all

When I match respondents in this way, I find that (after removing people who responded to the campaign period questionnaire before any of the debates took place) watching any of the debates is associated with an increase of 0.18 points on that 0-10 scale (p value: 0.04).

Is 0.18 points a little or a lot? One way of judging this effect is to compare it to the effects of other media consumption. For example: we can ask what effect “sometimes” reading a daily newspaper has, compared to never reading one. That effect, at 0.19, is slightly bigger than the effect of watching the debates. But the effect of debate-watching stands up well. So although some of the comment surrounding the debate-about-the-debates might have been bullshit, it might also (accidentally) be true.

Replication code is available at GitHub. Please do get in touch if you can improve the analysis — or suggest why turnout is so high in the pre-election wave.