Mark Flanagan: The perils of predictions in public affairs

Written by Mark Flanagan on 1 September 2017 in Opinion

Political pundits have had their fingers truly burned, most recently over Theresa May's poor election performance. We in public affairs industry need to up our game.

When you hear the names Dogger, Fisher, German Bight you immediately think of the Shipping Forecast, which has just celebrated its 150th anniversary. The Met Office claims the forecast is accurate 93 per cent of the time, which is reassuring, given that lives depend on it.

Obviously, in politics, forecasting is not exactly life and death. This is just as well given recent history.

Most political pollsters and pundits had their fingers well and truly burned over a string of major fails, from the 2015 general election, Brexit, Trump and most recently, over the Conservative Party’s genius in misplacing its majority.

We know from accounts by insiders, such as Nick Timothy, that the Prime Minister herself was being reassured on election day that a healthy lead was in the bag only to be cruelly, and tearfully, disappointed.

Moreover, pretty much all the leading commentators and political consultants, were predicting catastrophe for Labour’s campaign and in violent agreement that Corbyn faced annihilation.

In the same vein, one of the UK’s leading journalists, a close follower of American politics, told me personally that it was mathematically impossible for Donald Trump to be elected President of the United States, just 72 hours before that very thing happened.

The economics profession hasn’t fared much better. Moving swiftly over their failure to foresee the financial crash, almost all reputable bodies such as the Bank of England, HM Treasury, IMF and OECD, predicted the UK would plunge straight into recession after the Brexit vote.

I don’t want to sound all Michael Gove-ish, but maybe the days of the bold pronouncement by so-called experts, delivered with iron certainty, have had their day? Or have we always put too much store by predictions?

Philip Tetlock, from the University of Pennsylvania, analysed 82,000 forecasts from 284 experts over a 20-year period and found that the predictions were just as likely to be wrong as right. The average pundit, he wrote, fared no better that a ‘dart throwing monkey’.

I rather like Isaiah Berlin’s description of pundits as ‘hedgehogs’, those who tended to have one big idea which they loved to stretch, sometimes to breaking point. By contrast, he said, the better forecasters are ‘foxes’ who drew inspiration from many sources and accepted the uncertainty of predictions.

We in the public affairs industry, to my mind, need to be ‘foxier’. We live in an extraordinary complex and volatile political and economic climate which requires agencies to offer much more than guesswork, gossip and glorified pub talk.

At Portland, we are developing a more nuanced approach based on sophisticated scenario planning. This means taking on board a number of different of views and inputs and then working, with our clients, through a range of options and probabilities.

The polling industry as whole has taken a knock in recent years but the answer lies in taking on board the data from research and combining it with our own expertise and experience. Good public affairs results from blending art with science.

Although I’ve warned about the perils of making predictions, I will offer one to end with; that the new political season will be as unpredictable as the last.




Mark Flanagan is managing director of corporate and health at Portland.

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