Magic concepts in policymaking — beware the appeal of ‘fix all’ ideas, and spend time on the details


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To solve the problems of government we need more innovation. And good governance.

A high-performance culture will help too.

And maybe another machinery of government change will finally sort out those lingering coordination issues — especially if we are able to revive the drive for reform.

Of course, it’s hard to disagree with any of these ideas — but they’re also pretty vague and can be reeled off easily without much meaningful change.

These can be what is known in the public administration literature as ‘magic concepts’ or ‘magical thinking’.

Simple fixes for complex problems?

Magical concepts are touted as the solution to any number of complex problems but can create their own trouble if they end up being a smokescreen for the deeper thinking and action needed to actually resolve the issues.

“It’s the risk of using the big ideas to hide from the detail,” Associate Professor Gemma Carey tells The Mandarin.

Carey is research director at UNSW’s Centre for Social Impact, and co-author with Eleanor Malbon of ‘Strange magic: what can the emergence of ‘magic concepts’ tell us about policy implementation?’.

“There is a tendency to pose “magic concepts” (i.e. structural solutions) as a means by which to solve a range of governance and implementation issues,” write Carey and Malbon.

“While it is increasingly recognised in the scholarly literature that structural solutions to organisational performance and governance challenges are often inadequate or problematic, they can still frequently be found in practice.”

The paper argues that at the time the research was conducted 18 months ago, the idea of a new regulator acted as a magical concept for solving the many problems of National Disability Insurance Scheme implementation, despite their diverse and highly complex nature (though as the regulator is now up and running the situation may have changed).

Interviews with NDIS administrators showed that creating a new regulator served as a “fix all” idea, even though experience shows attempting to fix problems within existing agencies may be a better option than building new structures.

Administrators hoped the new agency would address problems around market stewardship and customer choice, among others. Carey and Malbon were concerned this overlooks other issues:

“Sharing these roles across two new agencies — the NDIA and the regulator — especially when the NDIA has been identified as having major capacity issues, is likely to add to confusion and complexity around these activities.”

Vague but attractive

Carey and Malbon’s definition of a magical concept is based on a 2011 paper by Christopher Pollitt and Peter Hupe. They argue magical concepts have four common characteristics:

  1. Broadness: they are widely applicable, have a wide scope and high valency.
  2. Normative attractiveness: overwhelmingly positive connotations, it is hard to argue against them.
  3. The implication of consensus: they obscure conflicting interests and logics.
  4. Marketability: the concept is known and used by the practitioners and academics, frequently appearing in communications material and referred to as solutions.

Pollitt and Hupe note that often magical concepts can be contradictory. It’s just as easy to say we need more decentralisation — to harness local knowledge/faster decisions/better communication/more participation — as it is that we need more centralisation — economies of scale/critical mass of expertise/unified steering and strategy. In the abstract, both sound reasonable, but the details of the specific case are important.

The Pollitt and Hupe paper examines five terms they identify as magical concepts:

  • Governance
  • Networks
  • Accountability
  • Innovation
  • Management

“‘Good governance’, is obviously normative. Who could be in favour of ‘bad governance’? And what is the opposite of ‘governance’, anyway?” they wonder.

Another example, no doubt familiar to anyone who has read a broadsheet or attended a conference in the past few years, is ‘reform’. That we need to return to the era of reform is a broadly held view — but which reforms precisely are required is much more open to debate.

“It’s the risk of using the big ideas to hide from the detail.”

‘Co-design’ is likewise commonly proposed as a solution, though it encompasses a wide range of practices and often reproduces the power imbalances between the community and government it is meant to address.

Such terms also tend to be good at attracting funding and political support. It’s easier to engage the public with high-level rhetoric.

Of course, these are all legitimate and useful concepts when used to inform strategic direction.

The problem lies in these big ideas acting as a substitute for detailed thinking.

Practitioners “should not be seduced into thinking that these apparently unopposable ideas actually solve previous dilemmas or resolve awkward trade-offs”, argue Pollitt and Hupe.

Carey and Malbon say, for example, that NDIS administrators would be wise not to believe the new regulator will fix all their woes, and recognise that complicating the governance structure will add its own inherent challenges.

“When we find magic concepts in use we are likely to uncover problems and tensions that are being glossed over.”

Their paper provides practitioners with four questions they can ask to identify if they’re dealing with a magical concept:

  1. Broadness: Does the concept cover huge domains, have multiple, overlapping domains or connect with many problems?
  2. Normative attractiveness: Is the concept hard to argue against because of its perceived progressive values?
  3. Implication of consensus: Does the concept dilute or deny conflicting interests, logics or arguments about the best solution to the context-specific problem?
  4. Marketability: Is the concept known and used by many practitioners and feature in new policy documents, titles and new units within the context?

Carey recommends “being careful about when and how you use ideas — look at the assumptions and what is being overlooked or avoided.”

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