The danger of policy – and deliberation – in straight lines

Teaching a class of middle- ranking policy makers last year brought to the foreground an issue I’ve been pondering for a while now.

It is this: many officials focus too much on a well-defined problem, and design solutions to fix that problem directly. Indeed, they are taught, and incentivised, to do that. The vast majority of public administration and management courses and text-books preach that one must first start with a well-defined problem, and only then design solutions to fix it; while only the most analysed, nailed-down, self-contained projects are approved by risk-averse political leaders and managers. And how can that possibly be a bad thing?

Well, what if the route to great maths and better behaviour and socialisation in schools is not teaching and testing ever-more strict numeracy skills, but teaching music?

What if the way to boost inner city restaurants and retailing — and a whole raft of public health, community and environmental goods —  is not to provide better parking for customers but to take it away, creating a more walkable, bikeable city?

What if the way to improve literacy and numeracy in indigenous communities in Australia, lowering welfare dependency and improving domestic violence statistics along the way, is not policing, welfare reform and top-down, military-led intervention but doing something as simple as handing over national park management to indigenous rangers?

What if we need to stop doing policy in analytic straight lines from narrow, well-defined problem to cost-benefit-analysed solution, and start coming at policy sideways, addressing background conditions that create the goods we seek?

CA traffic jamFor the last 50 years the usual way of understanding this is through the idea of ‘collective action problems’, most famously set out by Mancur Olson. As Olson points out, all sorts of individually rational, carefully-designed actions can have collectively irrational, damaging consequences: for example, addressing a road congestion issue by building more roads, which encourages more people to buy and use cars, which clog up the new roads, which is addressed by building even bigger roads, which encourage yet more cars, ad infinitum. The flip side of this is the ‘free rider’ problem which is that each individual often has only a tiny impact on the collective issue, yet the costs to them of sharing the load can seem high in comparison, which gives them an incentive to let everyone else bear the costs and still get the good they want. But of course, everybody then has an incentive not to contribute, which in turn destroys the good. My favourite example of this remains a classic from satirical news site The Onion:
‘How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.

This is not about bad design and decision-making; it’s about the collective impacts of rational but narrow design and decision-making.

Decision-making can be narrow in many ways:

  • The problem might — no, is very likely to — have inter-related dimensions, or be caused by influences well outside the policy-maker’s immediate remit, or have knock-on effects on other areas. If we focus on only one piece of what is really a complex, interrelated set of issues, there is a high risk that we create more problems than we solve.
  • The problem may be defined in terms set by one dominant group and not by the full range of those people affected. The classic example of this is the mess that was high-density state housing projects in many countries in the 1960s which viewed Victorian-era housing through top-down, public health and crime lenses and completely failed to register the fact that they were tearing down not houses but communities, thus causing more crime, more social dislocation, new health problems…
  • The process may focus purely on those who have a particular role relative to the agency designing the policy. For example, an employment agency may try to create rules about job registration, training and job applications, but the unemployed are never just unemployed in the formal economy. They may have crucial family care roles or do voluntary work that suffers when they have to devote more than a certain amount of time to finding work in a shrinking job market. Similarly, patients in a hospital are not just patients let alone just a bundle of pathologies; and so on…
  • Not everyone is motivated by the same things, not even the same person in different contexts. An incentive scheme that gets staff competing with each other might produce high performance in a sales role — maybe selling maps of national parks — but be disastrous in another context, like selling permits to that park which, if uncontrolled, end up degrading the park; let alone promoting competition among medical staff who require trust and collaboration to work together.

The classic ways to solve these problems are through some form of state regulation that makes us contribute to public goods for the benefit of everyone; or that stops us from free-riding and destroying the things we all want. And thus we have environmental regulations, road rules and traffic lights, compulsory education, and taxes to pay for it all.

Now, Olson’s insights were important and useful, but they don’t quite get at the ‘sideways’ point I am trying to make. Perhaps the field that captures this best is Public Health, which has always focused on the background conditions of health and wellbeing — water supplies, housing, communities, etc — rather than curing diseases or mending broken bodies. And yet, public health is always underfunded relative to acute medical services. Why is that? According to a 2010 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, it is in large part because:

  1. the benefits of such interventions are in the future, rather than immediately benefitting us, here and now;
  2. the benefits accrue to diffuse groups as a whole rather than directly to identifiable people; as the author, David Hemenway, puts it, ‘we will spend tens of millions of dollars to save one Baby Jessica but are often unwilling to spend an equivalent amount to prevent the deaths of many statistical babies’;
  3. it is hard to notice that one is not sick, breathing clean air, able to drive wherever one likes, have phones and schools — the benefits are diffuse and get taken for granted compared with direct, individual interventions.

Point three is especially important: instead of noticing the background conditions that allow us to exercise all sorts of freedoms, our attention zeros in on the restrictions on those freedoms — restrictions necessary to provide the public good in the first place. And thus we demand that governments deregulate, or fund outrageously expensive pharmaceuticals, or build more roads, or allow opt-outs from state education, or send in the army.

Deliberative democrats have long advocated solutions to those biases, and it’s quite simple: direct involvement of citizens in creating new paths out of intractable problems. The more communication there is about the collective nature of issues, the better. However, I am of the view that deliberative democrats became too ‘straight line’ themselves. We became too focused on small-scale, deliberative problem-solving methods and not focused enough on the background conditions that create a citizenry that asks ‘sideways’ questions, or comes to appreciate the reasons for rules and regulations.

I’d like to see deliberative democrats pay more attention to education, like Kei Nishiyama; more attention to the media system that allows certain stories to be told and not others, like Hartmut Wessler; more attention to power relations and culture like Nicole Curato, Marit Hammond and John Min. There are bound to be other helpful background conditions.

And that, I suspect, is one of the routes to a better, less straight-line public policy.

For more reading on these ideas see ‘The Free Rider Problem’ at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The housing policy example is widely known, but my version of the story comes from Donald Schön and Martin Rein’s Frame ReflectionI’m also a huge fan of Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox The incentives issue is discussed in Julian Le Grand’s Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy, with related ideas given a more philsophical treatment in Robert Goodin’s Motivating Political Morality.

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