“Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.”
Often misattributed to Otto von Bismarck, this is a truism well appreciated by the policy analyst and policy maker alike.
I just spent a day in a policy seminar on the policy process put on by our local graduate school in public policy and co-hosted by the public service commission.The seminar was led by an academic and a senior bureaucrat and the room was filled with civil servants from a number of different ministries and with different titles following their names. Despite our differences, we could all appreciate the sentiment contained in that von Bismarck mis-quote, having been involved in more than one sausage-making session.
As with all such seminars, one is exhausted at the end because the room is too small and hot, but one comes away with a confirmation of what you already knew, a few pointers that you didn’t know, a new respect for your superiors (the assistant deputy minister was freaking amazing), a bit of a skeptical eye for the pure academic policy type (when she mentioned “wicked problems” I got all nauseated).
You also come to the realization that there is always a blowhard ideologue participant who thinks they know it all and better than everyone else to gum up the discussion. Luckily, when it came time to present our “Recommendation to the Minister” on the case study — the culmination of our day of learning — he went last and since most of us were already brain-dead, we ignored him. My colleague and I rolled our eyes at each other from across the room as he spouted his drivel.
He was a climate denier and I fantasized about inflicting a few mental (and physical) Judo chops on him given half a chance but I was restrained. I have to keep my super secrit identity super secrit so as to not lose my job because I have teenagers reliant on my bringing home half the bacon.
So what is the upshot of my 8 hours of continuing education? And how does this apply to climate change / global warming policy?
NOTE: This does not represent what I think SHOULD be the way policy is made. It represents my best understanding of how it IS made. Warts and all.
Civil servants like me don’t make policy. Policy Makers — aka politicians — do.
We don’t work for “The People” or “The Public Good” or “The Betterment of Humankind” or even “The Truth”.
We work for the Premier (or Minister or Prime Minister, at least in the Westminster System of Government).
The purpose of policy analysis is to develop sound policy that addresses the policy problem without losing your boss’s job.
You have any qualms about what you are doing, you quit. That’s pretty much your only option.
The purpose of the policy analyst or advisor is to provide the (Insert Political Overlord in Question) with options to address policy problems and the implications of those options and a recommendation based on all considerations, but most especially, the costs. Not just any cost, but foremost is the political cost of the options to address said policy problem.
Now, there are many ways for a timid policy maker to avoid doing something he or she is uncomfortable with politically.
You can merely ignore the problem or deny it exists. This is a favoured option as it simply avoids making a bad or politically costly decision. Of course, no decision is still a decision, so the timid politician can’t weasel out of things too easily. At some point, the policy maker may just have to buckle down and recognize that the problem exists, especially, and this is key, if the public sentiment is leaning towards addressing that problem.
Having been forced to recognize that a problem exists, the next dodge is to deny that government has any purview over the problem. This is the cry of the libertarian climate denier — government just isn’t the right instrument to deal with the climate problem. It must be left to the invisible hand of the market. Lately though, one gets the feeling that the invisible hand has been giving us ordinary folk the finger… But I digress…
The policy analyst or advisor must present the policy maker with options to address the problem. But another key dodge is that problems can be framed in different ways to accommodate political ideology. For example, a denier may present climate change as “a natural phenomenon” and thus, the only real option is to “adapt”. Policy options will then be focused around adapting our behaviors and institutions and actions to the new reality. Certainly not doing anything to prevent it or moderate it.
And even if the policy maker acknowledges the problem and thinks it’s appropriate for government to address it, and even if they accept that it is possible to try to mitigate it, there are still many dodges left.
For example, one could focus on addressing “Carbon Intensity” when referring to the problem of “greenhouse gas emissions” thus one can do not much of anything whilst looking as if one is doing something. This is perhaps one of the most favoured options of the timid policy maker. It’s called “half-assed is better than nothing”. It amounts to nothing much more than wheel-spinning or hamster-wheel-running. Lots of activity but not much of a result except a less bad outcome that makes one exhausted.
But what about the science? you ask, and rightly so. What about the science?
Science is just one form of evidence. It can be included into the mix, and should be, of course, but it is just one form of evidence. Other forms of evidence may be deemed to be more compelling. More pertinent.
Science is added to the mix of other evidences, such as local stakeholder opinion, opinion of industry, and other forms of “evidence’ such as political cost.
Science is important, especially when making a case for a particular action. One then runs to the evidence to justify a decision. However, when the science is against your interest as a policy maker, for whatever reason, one can point out that the science “isn’t settled” or that there’s conflicting scientific opinion, thus allowing the timid policy maker to conveniently ignore it for other evidence.
Such as the political cost of an action.
This is when consultation comes into play. One must consult. Stakeholders. Interested parties. The public. One must consider their opinions on the problem and what should be done.
In the issue of climate change, the key stakeholders are all those who are affected by a policy to address it. The public, industry, workers in the industry, etc. One consults the science, the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the industry affected and the citizens. The consultations produce mounds of evidence that must be considered and weighed.
The goal of the policy analyst is to come up with good public policy. Good public policy is a policy that achieves its objectives — address the problem without losing your boss’s job.
Which brings us to the political cost of an policy option.
Politicians will rarely make a policy that is certain to lose them an election. It would be political suicide and politicians get into politics to exercise power, not to lose it or throw it away. They occasionally do it out of sheer incompetence, but not usually intentionally.
In our case, the political cost of mitigating climate change / global warming is a key bit of evidence for the policy analyst and policy maker — perhaps the most important. This bit of evidence has a lot of weight in the policy process.
The ethical policy analyst should consider all the evidence. The policy recommendation and options should be “informed by the evidence” but not determined solely by the science.
Remember — the policy analyst works for the Premier or Minister and the political cost of an option must be key to determining its appropriateness.
In other words, if an option is so politically costly that it would lose the politician’s seat in the next election, you can fuggetaboutit.
There is no use having power if your actions lead to you losing it.
So the best the ethical policy analyst can do is present the options, present the evidence supporting the options, and present the political costs of each option, present the recommendation that achieves the goal of solving the policy problem without threatening the continued existence of the policy maker and hope the policy maker does the right thing.
Because in the end, it is not up to the policy analyst or advisor to make policy. It is up to the policy maker (hence the name). One can only be as inclusive in one’s portrayal of the policy problem, as comprehensive as one can be in a short document (policy decision items are several pages long but the policy maker may only read the first page, zeroing in on the recommendation and costs) and let the elected representative make the decision and take the resulting heat.
Our system of democracy means that the people, the citizens, have ceded power to the elected official and have given them the right — and the burden — of making policy. If we don’t like the policy they make, our only option is to chuck them out the next time we get around to voting.
And in the case of global warming, the only way that policy analysts will recommend serious actions to mitigate CO2 will be when they deem that the political cost of not doing so will trump the political costs of doing so.
Until the public gets on side and threatens to throw the bastards out of office for not mitigating CO2, it ain’t gonna happen.
This — this reality of the policy making process — the political cycle and the election cycle and the problem of political power — is why the public is the target of the denialist campaign to discredit climate science and climate scientists. Confuse the public about the reality of global warming, undermine their sense of trust in the science and scientists, and the public will prefer the status quo.
Business as usual.
For those hoping to influence the policy process, the main strategy is to build public momentum for action — or inaction, depending on your position — and force policy makers to make appropriate policy.
It’s all about political will.
Only the threat of loss of political power will work.