Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is 'public policy' an out of date discipline?

Sometimes I wonder whether my chosen field, public policy, is actually running out of steam as a discipline.

Here's my line of thought:

1. Public policy can be understood as the process by which decisions by public institutions (mainly government) are made for the benefit of the public. Policy is enacted through government programs and services implemented by public administrations.

2. Increasingly, though, government is not in charge of the issues that it wants to address. Homelessness, climate change, spiraling health care costs--all of these are critical issues of our political conversation, but government cannot 'fix' them, despite pretensions otherwise. Progress in these areas demands the efforts and resources of many different players. No one organization is going to save the world by itself.

3. This means public policies are a lot less important than they used to be. To be clear: it's not that they're unimportant. But they are only really powerful if they can be well coordinated with the action of other organizations, communities and individuals.

4. So the value of public policy isn't the policy. It's the ability to build relationships, trust and manage interests in such a way that leads networks of individuals, communities, businesses and NGOs towards a shared goal.

There are lots of examples of areas where 'policy' as it's classically understood  still has tons of sway. Tax policy and economic forecasting come to mind. But even those are simply tools in a toolbox that government has to achieve goals and influence change. Good tax policy is useful when it aligns with (or funds) programs and services that make a difference.

If I'm right about this, I think the most interesting implication is the shift it will demand from the public servants formerly known as 'policy wonks'.

Policy wonks are the privileged experts of the government world. They are impartial advisors to elected decision makers, and handle some of the most sensitive and secret of materials for their political masters. They know issues deeply, and through analysis and research, come up with the options that land on Cabinet tables. It's heady, influential and addictive stuff.

The argument I'm making is that in the future, wonkish expertise is going to be of lower value than the ability to leverage networks, cut deals, and align ideas, people and action behind the goals Ministers want to achieve. Policy analysts won't be doing much analysis. Instead, they'll be using collaborative tools like the web in tandem with well honed powers of communication, facilitation and imagination to do the work the public needs.

I'm curious what you think. I'm I saying something obvious? Or is there a real shift occurring that means 'policy' isn't that relevant any more?

Posted via email from David's posterous

1 comment:

Colin Spencer said...

I'm inclined to agree with you. The idea that government can solve all problems is a very out-dated idea that is reminiscent of the 1970s.

However, I don't think the changing nature of the public policy discipline means that policy wonks are obsolete. It simply means that they need to use new and maybe different tools in their toolboxes in the course of their policy analysis, and then later, policy implementation.

I would argue that as long as civic engagement continues to decline (mad props to Putnam's 'Bowling Alone'), governments are going to continue to be in a position where they demonstrate leadership on issues. How they demonstrate that leadership, however, is what is changing (or maybe it already has).

Governments are increasingly using new tools (partnerships, relationships, moral suasion) to leverage efforts from civil society.