Mission Failure

Matthew Sawh at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Exposing the problems of policy schools can ignite new ways to realize the mission of educating public servants in the 21st century….

Public policy schools were founded with the aim to educate public servants with academic insights that could be applied to government administration. And while these programs have adapted the tools and vocabularies of the Reagan Revolution, such as the use of privatization and the rhetoric of competition, they have not come to terms with his philosophical legacy that describes our contemporary political culture. To do so, public policy schools need to acknowledge that the public perceives the government as the problem, not the solution, to society’s ills. Today, these programs need to ask how decisionmakers should improve the design of their organizations, their decision-making processes, and their curriculum in order to address the public’s skeptical mindset.

I recently attended a public policy school, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), hoping to learn how to bridge the distrust between public servants and citizens, and to help forge bonds between bureaucracies and voters who feel ignored by their government officials. Instead of building bridges across these divides, the curriculum of my policy program reinforced them—training students to navigate bureaucratic silos in our democracy. Of course, public policy students go to work in the government we have, not the government we wish we had—but that’s the point. These schools should lead the national conversation and equip their graduates to think and act beyond the divides between the governing and the governed.

Most US public policy programs require a core set of courses, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, statistics, and organizational management. SIPA has broader requirements, including a financial management course, a client consulting workshop, and an internship. Both sets of core curricula undervalue the intrapersonal and interpersonal elements of leadership, particularly politics, which I define aspersuasion, particularly within groups and institutions.

Public service is more than developing smart ideas; it entails the ability to marshal the financial, political, and organizational supports to make those ideas resonate with the public and take effect in government policy. Unfortunately, these programs aren’t adequately training early career professionals to implement their ideas by giving short shrift to the intrapersonal and institutional contexts of real changemaking.

Within the core curriculum, the story of change is told as the product of processes wherein policymakers can know the rational expectations of the public. But the people themselves have concerns beyond those perceived by policymakers. As public servants, our success depends on our ability to meet people where they are, rather than where we suppose they should be.  …

Public policy schools must reach a consensus on core identity questions: Who is best placed to lead a policy school? What are their aims in crafting a professional class? What exactly should a policy degree mean in the wider world? The problem is that these programs are meant to teach students about not only the science of good government, but the human art of good governance.

Curricula based on an outdated sense both of the political process and of advocacy is a predominant feature of policy programs. Instead, core courses should cover how to advocate effectively in this new political world of the 21st century. Students should learn how to raise money for a political campaign; how to lobby; how to make an advertising budget; and how to purchase airtime in the digital age…(More)”

To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good

Social Science Research Council: “For decades, the social sciences have generated knowledge vital to guiding public policy, informing business, and understanding and improving the human condition. But today, the social sciences face serious threats. From dwindling federal funding to public mistrust in institutions to widespread skepticism about data, the infrastructure supporting the social sciences is shifting in ways that threaten to undercut research and knowledge production.

How can we secure social knowledge for future generations?

This question has guided the Social Science Research Council’s Task Force. Following eighteen months of consultation with key players as well as internal deliberation, we have identified both long-term developments and present threats that have created challenges for the social sciences, but also created unique opportunities. And we have generated recommendations to address these issues.

Our core finding focuses on the urgent need for new partnerships and collaborations among several key players: the federal government, academic institutions, donor organizations, and the private sector. Several decades ago, these institutions had clear zones of responsibility in producing social knowledge, with the federal government constituting the largest portion of funding for basic research. Today, private companies represent an increasingly large share not just of research and funding, but also the production of data that informs the social sciences, from smart phone usage to social media patterns.

In addition, today’s social scientists face unprecedented demands for accountability, speedy publication, and generation of novel results. These pressures have emerged from the fragmented institutional foundation that undergirds research. That foundation needs a redesign in order for the social sciences to continue helping our communities address problems ranging from income inequality to education reform.

To build a better future, we identify five areas of action: Funding, Data, Ethics, Research Quality, and Research Training. In each area, our recommendations range from enlarging corporate-academic pilot programs to improving social science training in digital literacy.

A consistent theme is that none of the measures, if taken unilaterally, can generate optimal outcomes. Instead, we have issued a call to forge a new research compact to harness the potential of the social sciences for improving human lives. That compact depends on partnerships, and we urge the key players in the construction of social science knowledge—including universities, government, foundations, and corporations—to act swiftly. With the right realignments, the security of social knowledge lies within our reach….(More)”

Message and Environment: a framework for nudges and choice architecture

Paper by Luca Congiu and Ivan Moscati in Behavioural Public Policy: “We argue that the diverse components of a choice architecture can be classified into two main dimensions – Message and Environment – and that the distinction between them is useful in order to better understand how nudges work. In the first part of this paper, we define what we mean by nudge, explain what Message and Environment are, argue that the distinction between them is conceptually robust and show that it is also orthogonal to other distinctions advanced in the nudge literature. In the second part, we review some common types of nudges and show they target either Message or Environment or both dimensions of the choice architecture. We then apply the Message–Environment framework to discuss some features of Amazon’s website and, finally, we indicate how the proposed framework could help a choice architect to design a new choice architecture….(More)”.

The rise of policy innovation labs: A catalog of policy innovation labs across Canada

Report by the Centre for Policy Innovation and Public Engagement (CPIPE): “In recent years, governments all over the world have been embracing new and innovative ways to develop public policies and design public services, from crowdsourcing to human-centred design thinking. This trend in government innovation has led to the rise of the Policy Innovation Lab (PIL): individual units, both inside and outside of government, that apply the traditional principles of scientific laboratories – experimentation, testing, and measurement – to social problems.

PILs are an increasingly important development in public policy making, with a variety of methods and approaches to building relationships between governments, organizations, and citizens, and generating ideas and designing policy. Yet, these labs are under-researched: many are established without a full understanding of their role and value to the policy community. We aim to address this knowledge gap, and create opportunities where policy innovators can make connections with their peers and learn about the current practices and applications of policy innovation from one another.

This report identifies the innovation labs in Canada, profiling their methodologies, projects, and partners, mapping the policy innovation landscape across the country. Each one-page summary provides a profile for each lab, and highlights the existing innovation practices and networks in the public, academic, non-profit, and private sectors, and identifies methodological and ideological trends across the different labs and networks.

This report is the first of its kind in North America. In this highly dynamic space, new labs are emerging and disappearing all the time. The purpose of this report is to put a spotlight on policy innovations and their successes, and to build and strengthen connections between researchers, policymakers, and policy innovators. Through a strengthened and sustained community of practice, we hope to see governments continue to embrace new approaches for effective policymaking…(More)”.

Citizen science, public policy

Paper by Christi J. GuerriniMary A. Majumder,  Meaganne J. Lewellyn, and Amy L. McGuire in Science: “Citizen science initiatives that support collaborations between researchers and the public are flourishing. As a result of this enhanced role of the public, citizen science demonstrates more diversity and flexibility than traditional science and can encompass efforts that have no institutional affiliation, are funded entirely by participants, or continuously or suddenly change their scientific aims.

But these structural differences have regulatory implications that could undermine the integrity, safety, or participatory goals of particular citizen science projects. Thus far, citizen science appears to be addressing regulatory gaps and mismatches through voluntary actions of thoughtful and well-intentioned practitioners.

But as citizen science continues to surge in popularity and increasingly engage divergent interests, vulnerable populations, and sensitive data, it is important to consider the long-term effectiveness of these private actions and whether public policies should be adjusted to complement or improve on them. Here, we focus on three policy domains that are relevant to most citizen science projects: intellectual property (IP), scientific integrity, and participant protections….(More)”.

Behavioural science and policy: where are we now and where are we going?

Michael Sanders et al in Behavioral Public Policy: “The use of behavioural sciences in government has expanded and matured in the last decade. Since the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has been part of this movement, we sketch out the history of the team and the current state of behavioural public policy, recognising that other works have already told this story in detail. We then set out two clusters of issues that have emerged from our work at BIT. The first cluster concerns current challenges facing behavioural public policy: the long-term effects of interventions; repeated exposure effects; problems with proxy measures; spillovers and general equilibrium effects and unintended consequences; cultural variation; ‘reverse impact’; and the replication crisis. The second cluster concerns opportunities: influencing the behaviour of government itself; scaling interventions; social diffusion; nudging organisations; and dealing with thorny problems. We conclude that the field will need to address these challenges and take these opportunities in order to realise the full potential of behavioural public policy….(More)”.

What’s Wrong with Public Policy Education

Francis Fukuyama at the American Interest: “Most programs train students to become capable policy analysts, but with no understanding of how to implement those policies in the real world…Public policy education is ripe for an overhaul…

Public policy education in most American universities today reflects a broader problem in the social sciences, which is the dominance of economics. Most programs center on teaching students a battery of quantitative methods that are useful in policy analysis: applied econometrics, cost-benefit analysis, decision analysis, and, most recently, use of randomized experiments for program evaluation. Many schools build their curricula around these methods rather than the substantive areas of policy such as health, education, defense, criminal justice, or foreign policy. Students come out of these programs qualified to be policy analysts: They know how to gather data, analyze it rigorously, and evaluate the effectiveness of different public policy interventions. Historically, this approach started with the Rand Graduate School in the 1970s (which has subsequently undergone a major re-thinking of its approach).

There is no question that these skills are valuable and should be part of a public policy education.  The world has undergone a revolution in recent decades in terms of the role of evidence-based policy analysis, where policymakers can rely not just on anecdotes and seat-of-the-pants assessments, but statistically valid inferences that intervention X is likely to result in outcome Y, or that the millions of dollars spent on policy Z has actually had no measurable impact. Evidence-based policymaking is particularly necessary in the age of Donald Trump, amid the broad denigration of inconvenient facts that do not suit politicians’ prior preferences.

But being skilled in policy analysis is woefully inadequate to bring about policy change in the real world. Policy analysis will tell you what the optimal policy should be, but it does not tell you how to achieve that outcome.

The world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted. Take for example a carbon tax, which a wide range of economists and policy analysts will tell you is the most efficient way to abate carbon emissions, reduce fossil fuel dependence, and achieve a host of other desired objectives. A carbon tax has been a nonstarter for years due to the protestations of a range of interest groups, from oil and chemical companies to truckers and cabbies and ordinary drivers who do not want to pay more for the gas they use to commute to work, or as inputs to their industrial processes. Implementing a carbon tax would require a complex strategy bringing together a coalition of groups that are willing to support it, figuring out how to neutralize the die-hard opponents, and convincing those on the fence that the policy would be a good, or at least a tolerable, thing. How to organize such a coalition, how to communicate a winning message, and how to manage the politics on a state and federal level would all be part of a necessary implementation strategy.

It is entirely possible that an analysis of the implementation strategy, rather than analysis of the underlying policy, will tell you that the goal is unachievable absent an external shock, which might then mean changing the scope of the policy, rethinking its objectives, or even deciding that you are pursuing the wrong objective.

Public policy education that sought to produce change-makers rather than policy analysts would therefore have to be different.  It would continue to teach policy analysis, but the latter would be a small component embedded in a broader set of skills.

The first set of skills would involve problem definition. A change-maker needs to query stakeholders about what they see as the policy problem, understand the local history, culture, and political system, and define a problem that is sufficiently narrow in scope that it can plausibly be solved.

At times reformers start with a favored solution without defining the right problem. A student I know spent a summer working at an NGO in India advocating use of electric cars in the interest of carbon abatement. It turns out, however, that India’s reliance on coal for marginal electricity generation means that more carbon would be put in the air if the country were to switch to electric vehicles, not less, so the group was actually contributing to the problem they were trying to solve….

The second set of skills concerns solutions development. This is where traditional policy analysis comes in: It is important to generate data, come up with a theory of change, and posit plausible options by which reformers can solve the problem they have set for themselves. This is where some ideas from product design, like rapid prototyping and testing, may be relevant.

The third and perhaps most important set of skills has to do with implementation. This begins necessarily with stakeholder analysis: that is, mapping of actors who are concerned with the particular policy problem, either as supporters of a solution, or opponents who want to maintain the status quo. From an analysis of the power and interests of the different stakeholders, one can begin to build coalitions of proponents, and think about strategies for expanding the coalition and neutralizing those who are opposed.  A reformer needs to think about where resources can be obtained, and, very critically, how to communicate one’s goals to the stakeholder audiences involved. Finally comes testing and evaluation—not in the expectation that there will be a continuous and rapid iterative process by which solutions are tried, evaluated, and modified. Randomized experiments have become the gold standard for program evaluation in recent years, but their cost and length of time to completion are often the enemies of rapid iteration and experimentation….(More) (see also http://canvas.govlabacademy.org/).

How games can help craft better policy

Shrabonti Bagchi at LiveMint: “I have never seen economists having fun!” Anantha K. Duraiappah, director of Unesco-MGIEP (Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development), was heard exclaiming during a recent conference. The academics in question were a group of environmental economists at an Indian Society for Ecological Economics conference in Thrissur, Kerala, and they were playing a game called Cantor’s World, in which each player assumes the role of the supreme leader of a country and gets to decide the fate of his or her nation.

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that (this is not Settlers Of Catan!). Players have to take decisions on long-term goals like education and industrialization based on data such as GDP, produced capital, human capital, and natural resources while adhering to the UN’s sustainable development goals. The game is probably the most accessible and enjoyable way of seeing how long-term policy decisions change and impact the future of countries.

That’s what Fields Of View does. The Bengaluru-based non-profit creates games, simulations and learning tools for the better understanding of policy and its impact. Essentially, their work is to make sure economists like the ones at the Thrissur conference actually have some fun while thrashing out crucial issues of public policy.

A screen grab from ‘Cantor’s World’.

A screen grab from ‘Cantor’s World’.

Can policymaking be made more relevant to the lives of people affected by it? Can policymaking be more responsive to a dynamic social-economic-environmental context? Can we reduce the time taken for a policy to go from the drawing board to implementation? These were some of the questions the founders of Fields Of View, Sruthi Krishnan and Bharath M. Palavalli, set out to answer. “There are no binaries in policymaking. There are an infinite set of possibilities,” says Palavalli, who was named an Ashoka fellow in May for his work at the intersection of technology, social sciences and design.

Earlier this year, Fields Of View organized a session of one of its earliest games, City Game, for a group of 300 female college students in Mangaluru. City Game is a multiplayer offline game designed to explore urban infrastructure and help groups and individual understand the dynamics of urban governance…(More)”.

Forty years of wicked problems literature: forging closer links to policy studies

Brian W. Head at Policy and Society: “Rittel and Webber boldly challenged the conventional assumption that ‘scientific’ approaches to social policy and planning provide the most reliable guidance for practitioners and researchers who are addressing complex, and contested, social problems.

This provocative claim, that scientific-technical approaches would not ‘work’ for complex social issues, has engaged policy analysts, academic researchers and planning practitioners since the 1970s. Grappling with the implications of complexity and uncertainty in policy debates, the first generation of ‘wicked problem’ scholars generally agreed that wicked issues require correspondingly complex and iterative approaches. This tended to quarantine complex ‘wicked’ problems as a special category that required special collaborative processes.

Most often they recommended the inclusion of multiple stakeholders in exploring the relevant issues, interests, value differences and policy responses. More than four decades later, however, there are strong arguments for developing a second-generation approach which would ‘mainstream’ the analysis of wicked problems in public policy. While continuing to recognize the centrality of complexity and uncertainty, and the need for creative thinking, a broader approach would make better use of recent public policy literatures on such topics as problem framing, policy design, policy capacity and the contexts of policy implementation….(More)”.

How To Use Bureaucracies

Samo Burja at LessWrong:” …The purpose of a bureaucracy is to save the time of a competent person. Put another way: to save time, some competent people will create a system that is meant to do exactly what they want — nothing more and nothing less. In particular, it’s necessary to create a bureaucracy when you are both (a) trying to do something that you do not have the capacity to do on your own, and (b) unable to find a competent, aligned person to handle the project for you. Bureaucracies ameliorate the problem of talent and alignment scarcity.

Features of Bureaucracies

Bureaucrats are expected to act according to a script, or a set of procedures — and that’s it.

Owners don’t trust that bureaucrats will be competent or aligned enough to act in line with the owner’s wishes of their own accord. Given this lack of trust, owners should be trying to disempower bureaucrats. Bureaucracies are built to align people and make them sufficiently competent by chaining them with rules. When bureaucracies deliberately restrict innovation, they are doing it for good reason.

Bureaucrats are meant to have only borrowed power (power that can easily be taken away) given to them by the owner or operator of the bureaucracy.

Effective Bureaucracies

What is an effective, owned bureaucracy? Why are effective bureaucracies owned? To begin, we must make two important distinctions: one between owned and abandoned bureaucracies, and one between effective and ineffective bureaucracies.

Owned bureaucracies are bureaucracies with an owner; they’re bureaucracies that someone can shape. Abandoned bureaucracies are bureaucracies without an owner.

If a bureaucracy is owned, the bureaucracy’s creator is likely the owner. The creator will have knowledge about the setup of the bureaucracy that is necessary for properly reforming it. Others, unless given this information, will not understand the bureaucracy well enough to properly reform it.

The person technically in charge of the bureaucracy (e.g. the C.E.O. of a company who is not its founder) might not be its owner simply because he or she doesn’t have sufficient information about the bureaucracy’s setup to guide it. As a result, the official head of a given bureaucracy may just be another bureaucrat.

While the owner is typically the creator, this needn’t be true, as long as the new owner has come to understand enough of the function of the bureaucracy to make effective adaptations to its procedures.

Effective bureaucracies are bureaucracies that are handling the project they were created to handle. Ineffective bureaucracies are bureaucracies that are not handling the project they were created to handle.

Bureaucracies that are properly set up will be effective at the start. Changes in reality require changes in procedures, however, so a bureaucracy’s procedures inevitably need to be altered appropriately for it to remain effective. Over time, abandoned bureaucracies, having no person who can functionally shape the bureaucracy to make these changes, quickly become ineffective bureaucracies.

Owned bureaucracies, on the other hand, have a shot at making these adaptations to prevent decay. If the owner is skilled, the bureaucracy’s procedures can be modified, and the bureaucracy will continue serving its original purpose. If the owner is unskilled, it is as if the bureaucracy is abandoned — the owner’s efforts to change the bureaucracy’s strategies won’t yield successful adaptation, and the bureaucracy will become ineffective. As a result, for a bureaucracy to remain effective over time, it must be an owned, not abandoned, bureaucracy with a sufficiently capable owner.

Losing and Dismantling Bureaucracies

Bureaucracies are best thought of as an extension of their creator and as a source of power for him or her. However, the owner can lose control of the bureaucracy over time, as bureaucrats convert borrowed power into owned power by exploiting information asymmetries. While owners will try to limit the owned power of their bureaucrats, the bureaucrats will have more than enough time to study the instruments of their control and will learn what is rewarded and what isn’t….

The origin of bureaucracies lies in them extending power and effects far beyond what a single individual can do. They can do so in the absence of expensive and difficult coordination, or difficult to train and evaluate individual talent.

Much like factories can produce cheap products at scale with unskilled labor, displacing craftsmen, so have bureaucracies displaced local social fabric as the generators of social outcomes.

We find ourselves embedded in a bureaucratized landscape. What can or cannot be done in it, is determined by the organizations composing it. The constant drive by talented individuals to both extend power and make due with unskilled white collar labor (a category that economists should recognize and talk more about) have littered the landscape with many large organizations. Some remain piloted, others are long abandoned. Some continue to perform vital social functions, others lumber about making life difficult.

Much as we might bemoan the very real human cost bureaucracies impose, they currently provide services at economies that are otherwise simply not possible. We must acknowledge our collective and individual dependence on them and plan to interact accordingly….(More)”.