State Rating Agencies

People who buy cars can often get independent evaluations on them from auto mechanics. Same with house inspectors. More generally, consumers can get help in evaluating products from Consumer Reports, while bond investors can get help evaluating bonds via bond rating agencies like Moody’s. Charity donors can use GiveWell.

Such evaluations can be more useful than mere popularity or subjective ratings, as they can be based on relatively objective evaluation criteria. Due to such objectivity, users have to know less about how much the people who create such ratings share their interests and values. Users mainly need to know that creators are expert and mostly independent, not greatly beholden to folks other than users.

Which gives me an idea: Could we create long-lived independent ratings agencies to help voters around the world evaluate their incumbent governments? Truly global organizations with global reputations, so that they are less vulnerable to local pressures than are local media and organized interest groups?

The idea isn’t crazy, but we’d need to find relatively objective things that such agencies could measure and publicize. Not just general good outcomes like GDP or lifespans, as those tend to be hard to change, especially over short timescales. We’d prefer to measure things that are more directly under the control of incumbent governments.

One good cheap measure sometimes used today is transparency, which is the fraction of national statistics requested by the United Nations that this nation actually provides. Related measures might be produced by accountants who just apply standard accounting metrics to government accounting records. Another useful measure is the private income of politicians, beyond what they are paid publicly. Such income most likely comes from corrupt payoffs. Perhaps a fourth would be some measure of the fraction of trade that happens via black market. What more can we find like these?

Some organizations track which governments have which policies like allowing independent media, or making it easier to start a business. But many people dispute whether these policies are in fact better. So ideally we’d like to track things that most everyone can agree is either good or bad.

Most everyone disapproves of corruption, and governments can in fact change that quickly. So it would be great if independent agencies could measure and report on aggregate corruption. There are obviously relatively expensive but effective ways to do this, such as sending in random parties who try to do things and see how often bribes are demanded. But are there cheaper ways?

This isn’t an easy problem, but it also isn’t ridiculously hard, and solving it even partially would seem to offer enormous benefits. Today voters try to evaluate their incumbent governments based on their personal experience and on recommendations by local parties who are typically deeply enmeshed in local alliances. Which makes it hard for voters to know who to trust.

Wouldn’t it make sense to try to create more trustworthy independent global evaluators, like Consumer Reports and Moody’s, but for states? If voters believed such evaluators, then politicians would try to please them, producing less corruption and more of the good things measured. As they say “What gets measured, gets done.” So let’s work to measure more.

Added 19Oct: For some reason the above just doesn’t seem to make it clear that I’m not looking for general stats or indicators about nations, I’m looking for stats on the recent performance of the incumbent administration. That is what can be useful to local voters. So that has to be stuff the incumbent administration could substantially control, and it needs to be relative to what would have happened in a different administration. So that can’t be just local public perceptions or general rankings of nations or general slowly-changing outcomes.

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