Policy: What is the Point?

In many ways, the objective of policy seems more relevant than ever. Politics and policy have once again become vibrant and engaging, as debates on everything from housing, to health, to hard borders rage on in the news with a vigour we have not seen in a long time. It is, in fact, the topic of conversation everywhere. Society feels truly political again, even as people talk more and more about how sick of politics they feel they are! (I would, perhaps, go so far as to say they are clearly not.) In a technologically advanced, post-globalist world, people have been increasingly taking politics into their own hands, and rightly so. Ultimately, however, these debates are all about policy, too. This very word, just like the word ‘politics’, comes from the Greek word, ‘πόλις’ – “polis”, meaning city, or body of citizens. And, it is only right that if we (as citizens) wish to see some change in the current state of affairs, we take policy-shaping too into our own hands.

The linguistic meaning of “policy” and “politics” tell us something important about the whole action of making policy; without it, there can be no real political process and no organised society. The opposite of organised society (anarchy) entails no politics, no government and no policies. In such an anarchistic society, it is entirely up to the individuals to manage their lives and all that surrounds them with no regard for others. It is assumed that every person is naturally able to (without any rules whatsoever) work exclusively in their own interests without harming others. In some fairytale or Utopia this might be true, but the world filled with crisis, we are far from this. It is beyond reasonable doubt that most individuals do not see eye to eye. Indeed, the nature of the world is such that what benefits some may cause great harm to others. We see this impasse at every level, be it moral, financial, social or political. Thus, the solution is clear: we need government and by extension policymaking for the law, order and society to be held in place. We might not like the idea of authority and we might not like the idea of rules, but they keep things ticking over. Policy is the difference between savages and citizens.

Nonetheless, it would be equally irresponsible for the state to make do with any old policy or rule that a bitter old bureaucrat fancies. We need good, well-articulated policy. It is difficult, at first, to consider what a bad or good policy might be. Policymakers very often approach this question with their gut feeling asking themselves whether a policy suits their background, ideals and worldview. Such an approach is absolutely wrong. It is a purely subjective, simplistic method. In actual fact, good policy should not be entirely dependent upon the subjective, whimsical views of those in power during their tenure in the limelight. Instead, the primary step towards producing good policy hinges upon the responses to three fairly simple questions: (i) Does this policy actually work? (ii)Why does it work? (iii) How does this policy work?

If it works and we can prove this, we must consider the nature of the policy’s tenure. What might the consequences be over time? Have we come up with a short-term stop-gap, or a long-term solution? Policies can seem right at the time, but rapidly become obsolete. A relevant recent example is the requirement that all Government Departments in the United States must report on their preparation for the Y2K computer bug, caused by the millennium year. Donald Trump repealed that law in June 2017, nearly two decades after it was relevant, and after thousands of wasted hours

However, that is not to say that short-term policymaking does not have a place in modern governance. This is particularly true of economic policies and reforms to infrastructure and the labour market. Reforms in these areas take a long time, and a government needs enough time in office to push such measures through. A short-term sweetener, for instance, may buy a government enough time for a long-term plan to work. That may sound deeply cynical, but it is really about managing public expectations and giving a longer-term policy enough time to become effective, particularly given the risk of being voted out of office

The labour market is a prime example of this: if a government notices that its country’s automotive industry lacks workers and, there is a large amount of unemployed people from other sectors, what would be a sensible policy? Clearly, a government should seek to retrain these unemployed people where possible, enabling them to work in this sector and fill the available jobs. These people would need to train and potentially move towards work. They may have families too, so schools, hospitals, roads and so on will also need to be catered for. We must also consider the cost of living, and whether their new jobs would be able to support them. (Indeed, some would rather live off unemployment benefits as opposed to a wage that is too low to pay for the price of living.)

This policy seems to be, at face value, exclusively about employment. Yet, when one extrapolates further, there is a great deal more to be considered. Potentially, a short-term policy, such as raising the minimum wage, would deal with the initial issues caused by a policy (what are known simply as unintended consequences). These would give enough time to iron out early concerns, whilst medium to long-term priorities are dealt with.

Therefore, it is fair to say policies of varying timeframes each have their place. But, policymakers and politicians must also respect that their ability to make effective policy doesn’t revolve merely around time; it is also a question of accuracy. Thus, policies need to be based on objective research and the avoidance of personal biases or raw political expediency in order to work most effectively. A convenient example of this is the idea of personal motivation and bias as a basis for policymaking. A notorious example is Donald Trump’s present attempts to enforce a travel ban on the citizens of several Muslim states for ‘security reasons’. This was ruled unconstitutional until recently, and has only been partially imposed.

Yet, it is unquestionable that here are lessons to be learnt from this reactionary policy. The American President’s motivations ostensibly revolve around safety, but it would take a monumental act of doublethink to not also see a concurrent prejudice fuelling his policy. A post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical failing fuels the idea behind the ban, and it has actually, according to many sources, had little research behind it. In this case, President Trump’s attempt to ban entry to the USA for a significant number of Muslims was fuelled not by concrete evidence that they were a risk to national security, but by personal prejudice and a desire to play to the gallery.

In this specific case, a more effective policy combating the spread of this terrorist ideology of Salafi-Wahabbi extremism would look at why people are joining these groups, where sleeper cells lie, both process of radicalisation and de- radicalistion. Further national security measures may even be based upon risk assessment in public places and perhaps even necessitate more airport-style checkpoints. It would be reasonable to say that those terrorist affiliations must be banned from entering the USA. But, the ban as it stands, like the poor-articulated Great Wall of Mexico plan is a classic example of bad policy-making. Not only does this ban alienate more Muslims (which is what terrorists seek), making them vulnerable to strong feelings of disillusionment and growing hatred towards the state, but it is also a waste of time for local legal circuits and a laborious, unnecessary task for the Supreme Court.

We are hence brought back to the key question on policy: what is the point? Policy is meant to be a rationally-based, deliberate set of rules guiding government decisions and actions. The aim policy is to allow the government to do its job and improve the way a state works at every level. It serves to create opportunity, to raise living standards, to prevent exploitation, to keep us safe, to protect lives and our basic human rights. It requires reasoning, research, vision, talent and a burning desire to improve the society in which one lives. Policy should not be made in such a poor and off-the-cuff way. This is because of the simple reality that without policy, there would be little difference between the modern day and the societies we belonged to millennials ago. Policy-making has changed and evolved over time, but it would be folly, especially now, to forget that it can easily degrade and become dysfunctional if we take it for granted.


Charles Collard is the editor responsible for the Education Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank. 

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