UK takes a proactive approach to public engagement on trade
Published 08 May 2020
The UK has provided an example of how to reinvent the process of public engagement on trade to prepare for the upcoming US-UK trade negotiations.
It seems that studies on the effects of free trade agreements on the US economy have increasingly become exercises in checking a box, with groups for and against simply waiting on a punchline. Surely, we can do better to undertake public-facing intellectual analyses that are both accessible and potentially interesting to a wider swath of the general public – something more akin to what the United Kingdom (UK) has done to prepare for free trade agreement negotiations with the United States.
What’s good for the goose
Reflecting for a moment on US free trade agreement negotiations with Central American countries in 2003, I recall we simultaneously worked with the Central American governments to build their institutional capacity to implement an eventual agreement. We also nudged the governments to engage their public on aspects of the agreement early in the negotiations. (Full disclosure, I was the Director for Central America at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative at the time.)
Our contention then was that only a very limited segment of the population would be tuned into any calls for input through the countries’ “Diario Oficial,” their version of the Federal Register where the US government publishes notices of regulatory changes and opportunities for public comment. The Central American negotiators set out to conduct a series of roundtables, even engaging women in rural Guatemala about how their traditional handicrafts could benefit from intellectual property rights and exports under the agreement.
It could have been a moment for introspection on our part, but it wasn’t. After all, interested parties in the United States are very familiar with the process of submitting comments and appearing at a public hearing to express views on a free trade agreement.
But there’s always room for improvement, isn’t there?
A fresh take on public engagement in trade
The UK Department for International Trade has provided an example of how to reinvent the process of public consultation on trade. After all, it had to. The UK hasn’t needed to lead on trade policy development for the last 50 years. Brexit, by definition, means the public is seeking a bigger voice in its affairs, including trade.
The Department’s report titled simply, UK-US Free Trade Agreement, runs about 110 surprisingly readable pages, not including the helpful Glossary of Terms and a detailed summary of feedback from public consultations. It begins where it should, by making the “strategic case” for a free trade agreement with the United States – a clear exposition on the “why”. Then it turns to the “how” with an outline of key components of an agreement. With that as context, the report explains how the government undertook 14 weeks of public consultations that included use of a new online portal, 12 “town halls,” a national Public Attitudes to Trade Tracker, and a series of roundtable events throughout the UK. These engagements were in addition to forming standing advisory committees similar to those the U.S. government relies on for expert perspectives from industry and civil service representatives.
Having presented that material, the remainder of the report is comprised of two pieces. First and importantly, is the government’s response to public input – “we heard you” and here’s how we’ll use your input in the negotiations. And second, is a relatable presentation showing the results of standard econometric modeling to understand the potential effects of a free trade agreement with the United States on the UK economy and workers.
A great example of effective policy communications
The UK’s Scoping Assessment concluded a broadly liberalizing FTA with the United States would boost UK exports to the United States by 7.7 percent and UK imports from the United States by 8.6 percent. This would induce a 0.5 to 0.36 percent gain in the UK’s productivity, sustained over time. In the long run, almost all sectors of the UK economy would increase output as they more efficiently allocate resources.
The explanation of the modeling’s output breaks down impact to GDP across its components: consumption expenditure, investment, government expenditure and net trade (C+I+G+(X-IM)=Y is the one and only equation I remember from economics classes, so I found that part of the report interesting). The report explains the limitations and imprecision of modeling – in others words, we should not fight over trade policy based on debatable numbers, but rather over directional gains versus losses.
Rather than only present economy-wide effects (after all, everything smooths out in the long run), the report indicates which UK nations and regions stand to gain most (Scotland, Wales, the North East, East Midlands and West Midlands of England) versus those that would expand the least (London, the South West and East of England). This recognizes that employment and industry vary across regions. The report even takes into account the effects on the UK’s trading partner (in this case, us), and developing countries that have a stake in access to both the UK and United States, but which would be excluded from a UK-US FTA (impact negligible).
Focusing on jobs
The report is direct in explaining the implications for some workers that would need to find employment in growing sectors. It also concludes workers are expected to experience increases in overall real wages and outlines how those gains are derived. The report breaks down potential changes in average wages by type of occupation and skill level. It also identifies sectors likely to add jobs so that the government and businesses can better prepare workers for shifts into growth areas.
When it comes to job losses, the agreement is not likely to cause any disproportionate change to what different segments of workers would naturally experience in terms of job loss as the economy churns – with one exception. Jobs held by 16-24 year olds appear to be disproportionately concentrated in sectors where employment could fall. The government responds to this challenge by stating it already increased funding in education for 16-19 year olds, funding for STEM, technical and digital skills, and new technical qualification programs to address the impact. This a staggeringly different approach than waiting to catch workers with a safety net when they fall.
Importantly, the report was written so that any reader could understand how the analysis was arrived at, what it means for them based on where they work and live, and what the government was prepared to do with the information – and, that the analysis would be updated and repeated to inform negotiations as they proceed.
Most trade reports are Greek to everyone but economists
Why is the UK report so readable? Because it was written to be read by the general public, not merely by congressional staffers who glance at an Executive Summary or economists who perform modeling themselves. This is not a knock on the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) which produces US reports, though its report on the economic effects of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement was 376 pages and did contain Greek lettering.
USITC reports are first rate analyses deploying industry-standard methodologies. A paragraph at the beginning, however, offers a good indication the reports intend to stick to their congressional mandate:
“[The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015] requires the Commission to assess the likely impact of USMCA on the U.S. economy as a whole and on specific industry sectors, including its impact on the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP); exports and imports; aggregate employment and employment opportunities; the production, employment, and competitive position of industries likely to be significantly affected by the agreement; and the interests of U.S. consumers.”
So, smart USITC economists set about to use a standard economy-wide computable general equilibrium (CGE) model based on the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) model, among other modeling extensions, to fulfill its analytical mandate, with all the same caveats about econometric modeling limitations the UK describes. The USITC also conducts interviews with industry representatives and collects testimony from a public hearing and written submissions from interested parties.
But the end result is a document that fulfilled a requirement rather than one that informs the negotiations. Neither does it resemble a government strategy to leverage the benefits of a trade agreement or mitigate the negative impacts on some workers. And it is unlikely that most of the general public would feel compelled to read such a report to gain understanding of a major component of national trade policy. Again, this outcome is because that is not what the USITC was asked to do.
Being too careful about what you ask
Everyone has a stake in the direction and outcome of trade policies, but not everyone cares enough to have their say. Nonetheless, the main complaint about trade policymaking is that large organizations with Washington representation know when and how to provide their input. The rest of us do not. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-UK Business Council recently published comments on what their groups – that represent millions of workers – would like to see in a US-UK deal.
A big conversation is coming about the value of global trade, which at TradeVistas we think is generally a source of strength and resiliency, not a vulnerability. Perhaps the time has come for the US government to evolve and expand its approach to engage the public on trade before the deal is done, rather than pitch it to the public after the fact.
Given the potential for growing public skepticism, we can’t afford to wait to build awareness, understanding – and support – for trade deals like the one the administration is embarking on with the UK, one of our most longstanding and important allies, and a deal that will likely bring broad benefits to the citizens of the United States.