Politicians and public servants understand policy-making differently, and that’s OK

By Benjamin Miller

Monday May 24, 2021

(Image: Adobe/ goodluz)

All aspects of a policy need to work towards its overriding objective if it is to be effective. Put differently, it seems to me that the most successful policies are coherent. But in pluralistic societies, policies need to address multiple conflicting objectives to survive in the first place. Given this apparent paradox, is truly effective policy-making ever possible in these circumstances?

Politicians and the wisdom of incoherence in policy-making

If we’re being cynical, we’d say a politician has only one overriding objective: to obtain and maintain their position. In practice, this means satisfying a sufficient coalition of interests and actors who have the means of keeping them in power. The more democratic a system, the wider the range of interests and actors any politician will have to satisfy. The wider the range of interests and actors, the more competing objectives any policy a politician proposes will be subject to. In short, the more democratic the system, the more difficult it is to make coherent (and therefore successful) policies.

But so far we have only really judged good policy-making from the tacit perspective of public servants. Public servants have one or a few overriding objectives in their work: enforce a law, process applications, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. It is only from this perspective that competing objectives (whether they come from other public servants, from politicians, or the public) seem mainly like an obstacle.

But what if we view politicians as one way society binds people with competing interests together? The wider the coalition politicians need to assemble to preserve their position, the stronger the bonds of that society. Societies whose politicians can be maintained by narrower political coalitions, I submit, will have looser bonds.

So how would policy-making differ if we viewed the function of government more holistically. What if we perceived governments as responding to society’s needs in all their complexities and contradictions? We wouldn’t aim to maximise any one objective, but try to maximise as many as are compatible with others. In practice, this is what already emerges out of the imperfect struggle of internal politics within the public service. It’s what results from the imperfect stewardship of policy by politicians who may be better or worse, wider or narrower, coalition-builders.

Is there a better way? How can we get there from where we are?

Before we talk about trade-offs, try dialogue

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have positions in government with specific mandates. On the contrary, I believe it’s not only practical, but a good thing that we have different people to champion different objectives. For example, this allows for greater expertise and depth of knowledge, as people can devote themselves to one type of concern. Additionally, although it is a cliche, there is the simple truth that more heads are better than one, and the diversity of perspectives brings its own value rather than imagining we can unite all concerns in each person.

But this can become problematic for effective governance. Public servants can be incentivised to accomplish particular goals without regard for the goals of other departments. They might practice position-based rather than interest-based bargaining over policies. They may not be aware of or understand the concerns of people inside or outside of government with different priorities.

Balance emerges out of a process of genuine dialogue between people pursuing competing objectives within and outside of government.

Living in pluralistic societies means finding solutions that achieve the best integration of differing objectives. It requires different skills, processes, cultures, and institutions to work together. Solutions that maximise one set of objectives, rather than accommodating many, won’t survive or succeed.

Moving towards a more relational government will not end the fundamental conflicts in a society. There will still be genuine trade-offs even if the most integrative solutions are found.

But I think we often get fixated on those too quickly. We first need to give people the widest possible range of choices, and the best possible means to pursue mutually beneficial and reinforcing solutions. It’s only after that’s happened that adversarial competition over the trade-offs in policy may well be inevitable. At that point, we face political decisions best left to politicians who are accountable, one way or another, to the people whose interests they are sacrificing.


This article is curated from Apolitical.


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