A clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular problem (Oxford English Dictionary).

The term kludge is often used in the world of computer programming to refer to an inelegant temporary patch intended to solve a problem.

In an article for the Washington Post, Mike Konczal—a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute—discusses how kludges are also found in policymaking. Konczal argues that in a well-intentioned effort to make governing simpler, policymakers tend to adopt simple fixes, instead of policies that would make decision-making process actually simple.

Policies that make decision-making process simple can involve “nudges”—a behavioral economics concept proposed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In the article, Konczal writes:

“A simple policy is one that simply “nudges” people into one choice or another using a variety of default rules, disclosure requirements, and other market structures. Think, for instance, of rules that require fast-food restaurants to post calories on their menus, or a mortgage that has certain terms clearly marked in disclosures.

“These sorts of regulations are deemed “choice preserving.” Consumers are still allowed to buy unhealthy fast-food meals or sign up for mortgages they can’t reasonably afford. The regulations are just there to inform people about their choices. These rules are designed to keep the market “free,” where all possibilities are ultimately possible, although there are rules to encourage certain outcomes.”

On the other hand, there are policy “kludges”, which according to Steve Teles—professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University—illustrate the current public policy situation in the United States, reflected in the complexity of the healthcare, education, and environmental protection system, to which Teles further arguesAmerica has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.” 

According to Teles, these kludges can accumulate to be costly and complex with no clear principles. Continued iteration of policy kludges has increased the transaction costs for individuals to access services, the compliance costs for government and business, and created unequal opportunity for individuals and institutions to benefit from democracy. In Teles’ words, the costs of kludges are outlined as follows:

“The most insidious feature of kludgeocracy is the hidden, indirect, and frequently corrupt distribution of its costs. Those costs can be put into three categories — costs borne by individual citizens, costs borne by the government that must implement the complex policies, and costs to the character of our democracy.”