By Frank Blechman
Here’s a shocking thought for you: Government policy has never been determined entirely by facts or science. Policy, made by people within a political system, has always been made with a heavy dose of politics. Sometimes those political factors have included ideology, philosophy, and wishful thinking. Sometimes political factors have tried to disguise themselves as new science. One way or another, politics has always been there, and I think it always will be. We are human.
That leads directly to the question, “Is the political element in policy-making (and doing) a good (or bad) thing?” Before answering that one, I want to take one step back and ask another question: “Is humility in public life and policy-making a good (or bad) thing?” I think the answer to this second question is an undeniable, “Yes.” No matter how sure we are that we understand a situation or a problem, defining and developing a response should always be tempered by certainty that:
We don’t know it all. There is current information that we don’t have that could change our minds.
The current situation can and likely will change over time.
New knowledge will emerge in the future that creates new challenges and opportunities.
When I was teaching at George Mason University and consulting, I had a sign in my office that directly faced the door. Anyone entering would see the words, “I might be wrong.” People told me that if I wanted to sell my services, this was not a good opening line. However, when visitors turned to leave, they would see another sign over the door to my office which said, “I might be right.” I was always willing to concede the first point, if others would concede the second.
Anyone charged with responsibility for managing resources (especially public ones) should be aware of the limits of our knowledge and should make every effort to get the best current information, anticipate possible changes, and build in processes to consider new options when they arise.
When I taught negotiation skills, I always stressed that a contract or agreement was only as good as its renegotiation (amendment) clause.
This is harder to do in the public arena. First, political transitions (even in relatively stable administrations) and segmentations of authority ensure that the people implementing a policy may not be the people who made it. The doers may not understand much less support the ideas that underlay the policy in the first place. In fact, the separation of responsibilities in all large bureaucracies requires that those charged with a task do “the best they can” without asking too many questions (which slows down the doing).
Even the great British political philosopher John Lennon famously wrote, “So, you say you want a Revolution. Well, we’re all doing what we can.”
Returning to the first question: I think the political element in policy-making is a good thing. I believe that in a democracy or a republic, the primary function of politics is to frame choices that inform the electorate. “Do you want to go in direction A or B? Should we allow X? Should we prohibit Y?” Even though a single election rarely gives completely clear answers to these questions, the aggregate of many elections produces a body of opinion supporting various legislative or executive initiatives. In the best of all worlds, leaders are able to align legislative and executive actions to generate results.
Today, many observers bemoan the “anti-science” language and bias of the current federal administration. Commentators yearn for some bygone golden age of reason when science alone guided decisions. I think we would all do well to take a deep breath, step back, acknowledge that policy-making is always imperfect and always has been, and accept “politics” in the process. If we cannot accept this, we might get cynical when science tells us never to eat certain foods one day, and then reports that new studies say those same foods are OK (in moderation, of course).
So. Don’t be shocked. Don’t be cynical. Know that facts and science will always be joined with hopes and beliefs when public policy is being made. Be humble in our certainties. Accept that our “perfect” ideas are not perfect. No matter how much we would like to settle questions once and for all, these conversations are eternal.