OECD Observer
Speaking truth to power
Reflections on the future of the OECD

The OECD has transformed itself into a policy pathleader on a whole range of public policies–national, regional and local–with the avowed aim of promoting human progress. But is the new OECD a child or a prisoner of its past?

To answer this, one must understand the institutional alchemy that has enabled the OECD to reinvent itself as the global problematique has changed. After five years of research, Carroll and Kellow have hit the nail on the head. The defining character of the OECD, they say, is the deep involvement of the committees of national delegates in the search for “truth”. As a senior Japanese diplomat once said, “When I participate in the meetings of other international organisations, my mind is in the negotiating mode; when I come to the OECD, I am in thinking mode.”

On the national scene, the mere act of getting strategic new issues on the table meets political obstacles. On the OECD scene, there is more freedom to test out new policy options, to bring them the point of best practice and then to bring to bear the various “name and shame” procedures which result (in the words of Carroll and Kellow) in “epistemic learning”.

One can understand those critics who would like to see more OECD “hard” legislation, as, for example, in the case of the World Trade Organization, and the International Labour Organization. Although the OECD has legally-binding codes and conventions, it operates mostly according to the “soft power” of peer pressure and persuasion. This has merit. Legislation will often be based on hindsight rather than foresight. And the complexity and political sensitivity of the policy trade-offs between economic, environmental and social objectives gives soft power an advantage, particularly as new countries become important partners in the global economy.

From economic growth to human progress?

A striking example of this OECD soft power is the humanisation of material progress implicit in the dominant OECD communications slogan: “Better policies for better lives”. A life, after all, belongs to the individual rather than the system.

When the OECD was born economic growth was the central goal. Indeed, the competition between countries to win the GDP battle still dominates the scene today, as the emerging economies take the lead from the United States, Europe and Japan.

Yet, it is clear that, even for the economic growth leaders such as China, India and Brazil, the pursuit of economic growth cannot ignore building social cohesion and environmental equilibrium. This triangular policy paradigm, built up over 50 years of professional analysis and policy innovation, is still one of the OECD’s major assets. This is reflected in the declared OECD aim of “a stronger, cleaner and fairer economy”.

The triangular paradigm was built up, step by step, by the professional work of OECD committees and directorates.The OECD thus has a reserve of policy innovations, ready to be brought into the mainstream strategy of the organisation as defined by the Ministerial Council and the secretary-general.

The persisting crisis in the global economy has made clear the systemic complexity of the problems. No longer can the underlying assumption be that the three legs of the OECD policy paradigm–economic, social and environmental–move forward together. Economic growth is obviously essential to the achievement of social and environmental goals, but it can also come into conflict with these goals. Strategic governance and a new analytical toolbox would help deal with trade-offs and synergies.

From “rich men’s club” to global actor?

A special issue of the Global Policy journal sets out the views of a range of independent observers. On the whole, the opinion appears to be that the OECD is now a recognised global player because of the high quality of its professional analysis and the data banks on which it is based. The OECD is becoming, in this view, a sort of global think tank. But it is also deeply involved in the policy innovation process.

The real issue is whether “speaking truth to power” (in the terms of Carroll and Kellow) is effective in the present crisis. One answer lies in the various OECD reports delivered to the G8 and G20 meetings on the crisis. The simple truth is that all the major actors in the world economy are faced with the same challenges: how to achieve a sustainable path of progress based on a complex balance between economic growth, social cohesion and the husbandry of the biosphere. What is new is that there are no credible theoretical or ideological roadmaps to guide policy action. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” prediction that the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the final victory of liberal capitalism has been eclipsed by the new crisis. In this uncertain situation, the OECD’s capacity for policy innovation has a key role to play in the volatile arena of international co-operation. This is a task facing the New Approaches to Economic Challenges initiative, launched by the 2012 OECD Ministerial Council.

To the OECD’s professional expertise and intellectual independence can be added a tradition of openness, as reflected in its large publishing programme, the OECD Observer, blogs, and its interactions with businesses, labour unions and civil societies. All citizens can benefit from the results of OECD work via the web and other forums. Its fight against corruption and tax havens testifies to its political neutrality while its new OECD Strategy on Development has emphasised a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to global progress. The “rich men’s club” tag is losing its force.

The international community is faced with two major challenges: security and progress. The two are obviously linked, because in the long run only inclusive progress–englobing poor and rich nations–can thwart the clash of civilizations as predicted by Huntington. Yet, the public’s confidence in “progress”, seen as the human race’s capacity to master nature through science and thereby to promote affluence and power, has declined. The challenge is now to redefine “progress” recognising that economic growth is a sine qua non, but not an open sesame. The OECD’s strategy expressed by the communications slogan, “Better policies for better lives”, and going beyond GDP as a measure of well-being, are a good start.

The OECD’s capacity to renew itself is the result of the unique organisational culture born in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation from which it was forged in 1961. Again, it must carry that quality forward into the 21st century.

The complex challenges facing the “new” OECD can only be met through soft power. In a sense, the word has to prevail over the sword! Arnold Toynbee, after a lifetime’s work on the rise and fall of civilizations, postulated that mastery of production techniques leads to affluence and power, but to fail to meet social and environmental challenges leads to decline. Toynbee is thus on the OECD’s side!

But OECD soft power cannot bear fruit unless its communications strategies influence decisionmakers and the citizenry across the world. The public image of “the experts” is a vital asset, and selling it widely, while sustaining it, is a delicate communications imperative.

*Ron Gass is former founding director of the OECD Directorate of Social Affairs, Manpower and Education, and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. He is a former consultant to the European Union and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (Economic Development and Research Center).

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©OECD Observer No 294 January 2013