Wednesday, 3 April 2013

If You Only Remember One Thing About Government Policies....


Government policies are always making headlines – and the current ones doing the rounds are the recent Conservative Budget, and attached to that, The NHS reforms and the radical shake up of the Welfare system.  Government policies are sold to the public as courses of action that endeavour to improve a certain situation for the country.  But anyone who knows what goes on behind the political scenes knows that Ministers cover up their inability to measure policies properly by cherry-picking a few sound-bytes that show the benefits of a policy, and then by presenting them to the electorate (through the media) as though they are unequivocal vehicles for good. 

Not only do many Ministers have a poor understanding of what makes a good or bad policy, they actually leave those policy presentations in the hands of eloquent civil servants, who can carefully write the policy for the Minister in words that overstate the benefits, and omit the costs.  In fact, if you’re really proficient at creating spin you can even make some of the costs sound like benefits.  That is how the Government machine of duplicity works.

I don’t say that all policies are bad – but that’s not the point.  A Government’s principal concern is to stay electable – and to stay electable they have to create a lot of distortions to hide A) their incompetence, and B) the fact that most problems in the country can’t be rectified by Government policy.

To be fair to any Government, neither A nor B is their fault.  They can’t help it if most problems in the country are beyond the Government policy power – and, in fact, one might add that too many of the electorate must share some blame for this, as they continually fall for the delusion that Government policy power makes any real difference, which as a consequence elicits in Ministers the need to appease this demand by claiming they can change things.  To put it into context; the extent to which I blame the electorate for the Government’s duplicity is similar to the extent to which I blame the voracious appetite of the tabloid readers for the kind of crap the tabloids produce.  It is a relationship of toxic co-dependency.

As for the Minsters’ incompetence, well, again, to be fair to them, it takes a lot of brains to work out good polices from bad, and tap into the zeitgeist and assess the best way forward in multiple areas – and I don’t see why anyone would expect a Minister to have the skills to do this.  Ministers aren’t in Government long, and often they come straight into their Ministerial department for only a brief amount of time, with no training, little life experience, and no expertise in the Ministerial area for which they are responsible.

Now, here’s the one thing about policy making you’d be advised to remember.  You cannot demonstrate that a course of action will improve a certain situation for the country by listing its benefits (which is basically what a Government’s policy announcement is).  Any MP can think up a policy that has benefits; but if you want to claim that that policy will improve a certain situation for the country, you have to argue that its benefits outweigh its costs (I’ve never seen an MP even acknowledge that this is the essential part, let alone make a case along those lines). 

Not only should you insist that an MP explains that he has thought through how the policy’s benefits outweigh its costs, you should insist he shows you that he actually knows what it means for a course of action to be a benefit in the first place.  Every policy ever created has multiple benefits in some areas and multiple costs in other areas.  If a policy is to be worth implementing, then not only must the benefits outweigh the costs - those benefits must be shown to reach the standard where the benefits are worth having over the costs.  By now your MP is probably looking at you with an expression of utter confusion – as you’ve probably already lost him. 

Is a policy with 10 benefits in areas A,B, and C, and 6 costs in D,E,F and G more preferable that a policy with 4 benefits in areas A,B,C,D,E and F, and 12 costs in G and H.  How do you know, when you don’t know the full impact of any individual A-H ramifications?  Is a policy that delivers £2 billion to the poorer families at the expense of £5 billion tax increases for high and middle earners good for the country as a whole?  If so, why?  And if not, how much would the £2 billion need to increase, or perhaps the £5 billion need to fall, to make it a policy where the benefits outweigh its costs? 

A farmer who wants to know if a chicken is good for providing eggs can only find out by calibrating that chicken’s output relative to other chickens.  He can’t find out by comparing it to how much milk his cow provides.  That kind of understanding is what makes a skilled policy maker, and why I’d rather have much larger constituencies, many fewer MPs, and a much higher calibre of intellectualism in my candidates.  An MP who sells the nation a policy by only listing its benefits is merely playing the spin game – and sadly, we see far too much of this.

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