Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Policy Making in Government

I was recently chatting with Australian visitors about the similarities and differences in our experience in policy making – theirs in the Australian government, versus mine in the U.S. government and international development agencies.

Their experience with physicians entering the bureaucracy had some parallels to mine with scientists entering government agencies for the first time. The ideas of these professionals about health policy or science policy can be rather naïve. People in these professions usually are not trained in policy or organizational decision making. (And they don't understand how to draw on their training in decision making as individual professionals and apply it to organizational decision making.) Indeed, they sometimes don’t realize that economics, sociology, and political science are needed for their new functions in government. People who would be deeply offended if a lay person came into their health center or laboratory without medical or scientific training, forget that they ought to have training in the policy sciences before seeking professional status in policy making.

I would (unfairly) characterize the attitude toward policy of some young professionals from the medical and scientific fields as “I will just tell them what to do, and when they understand all these foolish mistakes that they have been making will be cleared up.” I fear policy doesn’t work that way.

In fact, the average bureaucrat is supposedly implementing a large number of policies (perhaps 100) in every action he carries out. With so many policies in play, it is often difficult to see the role of one versus another policy.

Robert McNamara commented in a program shown the other day on CSPAN that he was not pleased by the U.S. formal policy determination on nuclear weapons. McNamara, in his interview, talked about the need for a policy on the use of nuclear weapons. During his time in office, there had not been such a written policy, but he had been told that such a policy document had been created in subsequent decades. He went and found the document, and read it. He characterized the policy as being, essentially: “nuclear weapons are very bad, and should not be used unless absolutely necessary.” Of course this is common sense, and one would hope that national leaders would not be elected or appointed without the sense to know these things. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an important statement of national policy being developed that did not reflect common sense. But equally, such a policy would not help much in a real situation in which a president was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, McNamara wanted very much that there be a national debate, focused in the Congress, on nuclear weapons policy.

I suggest that this example illustrates two points:
1. Policies are not important, but policy making is;
2. Policies are not important, decisions are.

The importance of the policy making process

McNamara – who had a distinguished career as a military planner and corporate president before assuming the Secretary of Defense position, and a distinguished career as president of the World Bank after – called for a major public and Congressional debate on nuclear policy. I suspect he did so in the hope that such a debate would air the issues and educate the public and political leaders. I doubt that a written policy could be accepted through such a process that did not largely reflect common sense. On the other hand, the participants in such a debate would necessarily become much more expert in the issues of WMD policy, and would be likely to be better at decisions involving the use or threat of nuclear weapons in the future. Moreover, they would have better understanding from key constituents when it came to explaining such decisions.

In my experience with policy making, I have found that the process within a government is interesting. In the best examples, it has involved the review and analysis of scientific data as well as of experience. It has provided an opportunity for detailed discussion among government agencies that seldom have such opportunities. It has provided an opportunity for discussion of issues between people representing civil society and those representing government, and an airing of differences in viewpoint. The policy making process seldom has revealed anything that was not known, but it has informed individuals of things that they had not known.

The final development of a decision paper for top elected officials has tended to be an exercise in editing, cutting down complex issues to simple alternatives and explanations. Those who read this blog should realize that I favor legitimate complexity to oversimplification, but it is useful to go through the exercise of simplification of decision documents. The exercise forces one to prioritize issues and concerns.

I can think of development policies that have been unfortunate, in that they were unthinkingly implemented. But I can not think of a policy debate that itself was less than useful.

Decision making rather than policy making

Returning to McNamara’s interview, I don’t think that Viet Nam was so much the result of a poor policy as of a sequence of bad decisions. Certainly, no one in the U.S. government defined a long term policy that sought the long-term buildup of U.S. troops, followed by their departure, and the unification of Viet Nam under a North Viet Nam government. Rather, there were a sequence of decisions made, according to the circumstances at the time of each decision, which lead to that course of events. In retrospect, many of those decisions appear to have been poorly informed and badly made.

McNamara, in his interview, discussed the Cold War policy of containment of Communism, but did so noting that the “domino theory” was incorrect, but was only challenged in 1967, and that many decisions had previously been made escalating U.S. involvement in the war under the belief that Communist control of South Viet Nam would inevitably lead to future Communist overthrow of other non-Communist governments. I would note, however, that the “domino theory” was not the “policy”, and that it was subsequently possible to make decisions to allow the military defeat of the government in South Viet Nam without abandoning the Cold War nor abandoning the U.S. efforts for the containment of Communism. (I recall the comment at the time of the Communist government’s election in Chile, that “Chile is a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”)

I would agree with McNamara in what I take to be his contention, that for an important decision, key decision makers can examine cherished theories and revise or reverse policies. Indeed, I would suggest that “policies” seen in retrospect are often the cumulative result of a series of key decisions. Making the decisions well may thus result in processes which in retrospect appear to be the happy outcome of good policies.

For the young scientists and physicians entering government, I would suggest that they focus on helping to make good decisions rather than defining good policies. And I would suggest that they see decision making as a participatory process, rather than as a purely analytic one.