Are there always trade-offs in policy-making?

By Perry Walker

February 10, 2021


Policy-making is conventionally thought to hinge on trade-offs and compromise. I’ve spent 10 years collecting examples that show that, in a surprising number of cases, this is not the case. These are examples of solutions that conversely deliver win-win results, in which the needs of both parties are met without either having to concede.

This approach is just starting to find its way into government. Sophie Howe, the commissioner for Future Generations in the Welsh government initiative, has long advocated the principle of “no trade-offs”.

This piece has two aims. First, it aims to explain how a win-win outcome is feasible even when this appears unfeasible. Second, it aims to show how the approach to securing a win-win is starting to set a trend in government thinking.

How a win-win is feasible

The main reason I believe win-wins are feasible is that conflicts which appear to make them unworkable often fall into patterns. Each pattern has a typical solution. This in turns makes them analysable, and so resolvable. Allow me to illustrate which two examples.

The expression “win-win” is credited to Mary Parker Follett, an early American management guru. She tells the story of two sisters who want the same orange. The compromise solution is to split it, only it turns out one sister wants to drink the juice, while the other wants the peel to make a cake. In this case, the orange can satisfy both sisters’ needs.

The 1978, Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt over the status of the Sinai Peninsula followed the same pattern. The starting position of both countries’ was that they needed complete control of the land. On closer inspection however, it turned out that Israel’s primary interest was in security — having fought a series of wars with their neighbours. Egypt’s interest meanwhile was in sovereignty. The solution was to “give” the Sinai to the Egyptians in the name of sovereignty, and demilitarise it for Israel in the interest of security.

How to apply these ideas

Both these examples involve getting behind positions (P) struck by each side to address their underlying interests (I) and needs (N). This gives us the acronym of the PIN diagram, much used in mediation and negotiation.

There are two ways to use this diagram in policy-making. First is to adopt a version of the “Five Whys” used in Japanese manufacturing. Starting with the position, keep asking each party “Why is that important?”, until you reach their bedrock motives, interests and needs. Alternatively, get both groups into a room — probably a Zoom call these days — and seek out the overlaps. That’s what happened in Minnesota.

Adopting a win-win approach

You may be saying at this point: “Come on Perry, win-win outcomes are at best a rare blessing, not something you can ‘make happen’.” Let me draw a parallel with the field of innovation. In their 2013 book ‘Inside the Box’, corporate and academic experts Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg make a case for the assertion that: “Creative problem-solving has a ‘No compromise!’ rule.” The world of politics has yet to catch up with such thinking.
Here’s what underpins this mentality. There are distinct patterns to the situations in which win-win solutions look unworkable but are in fact viable. The first step is to identify into which pattern your issue fits. That done, apply creativity, as advocated by Boyd and Goldenberg. The best example for this is the timber tax in California (this book gives a great account of the process behind it).

The main patterns are:

  • Sometimes there appears to be a conflict, but there isn’t really. (The Tennessee Valley Authority in the US found that an apparent disagreement between specialists in malaria control experts and wild-life protection could be dissolved by an appropriate setting of reservoir levels).
  • Have you got the right question? In the city of Newcastle, in the north of England, the health service sought to improve “hospital discharge”, a horrid phrase referring to the discharge of patients from hospital after an operation. That frames the problem as one for the hospital to solve. The question was later reframed to be about how to improve the experience of patients going home. The emphasis shifted to the ways in which everyone involved – medical staff in the hospital, ambulance staff, GPs, interpreters, friends, neighbours and so on – could work better together.
  • False contradictions – as with the orange and Camp David, resolved by using tools like the PIN diagram to understand the underlying interests and needs of the different parties
  • A policy that different groups can support for different reasons. A big example at present is the notion of a citizens’ income – a regular payment by right to all citizens. It appeals to the social democratic left because it appears to promise equality, solidarity and redistribution. Yet it also interests the libertarian right, offering small government, freedom and efficiency.

I’d love to hear how you get on in sealing your next double-win at the negotiating table.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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