“Laws are like…

“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.

First principles:

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.

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

11 Responses to ““Laws are like…”

  1. That is a brilliant piece, Policy Lass. Have you ever thought about becoming a policy master yourself?

    Perhaps then you could harness power outside of the policy advisers and the policy developers and persuade, by fair means or otherwise, the opinion shapers to help pave the way for good policy to become reality.

    If that doesn’t appeal – write a book and take these insights to the world beyond blogland.. .

    • Sou – thanks – I did think of going back and doing a PhD in public policy, and went through the motions, got the application in and letters of recommendation, but the logistics of doing it (the PhD program is housed at a university 250km away from home and requires a residency period) and my stage of life (mortgage, car loan, retirement savings, teenagers needing skateboards and piano lessons) meant that I decided against it. I really would have to go live in that city part of the week in order to do it and that was impossible, given my circumstances.

      The cost of getting a PhD at the time ($30k) couldn’t be justified considering the fact that even with a scholarship/ grant, I would still earn way too little while doing it. Besides, I would earn less as a starting-Assistant Professor than I earn now. It would take at least a decade to get back to my current income.

      Besides I have a jaundiced view of policy academics, especially those who have a primarily-academic knowledge of policy instead of front-line work experience, having read some of the research. I want to be a critic throwing stones, not an apologist for the status quo, which is how I see many of the academics. They really do seem to want the ear of power, not to speak truth to it, even as a jester, but to be the expert and have the chance to whisper sweet nothings in its ear…

      The hard truth about policy analysis and the policy process is that politics determines policy not science or reason.

      In the end, good public policy ends up being generally ineffectual. It neither really solves the problem nor does it leave it unattended. It manages the problem. It manages the public perception of the problem. The problem doesn’t go away.

      Think of child poverty. Two decades ago, our politicians vowed to end child poverty by 2000. It was probably actually doable but did they?

      Say no more…


  2. This seems to be relevant: http://greenpolicyprof.org/wordpress/?p=790

    Who decides if you are working on short term or long term policy? The policy maker?

  3. This is really, really good writing. I missed it the first few times by, somehow the cartoon didn’t encourage me to look at the post.

    I wonder if you can write something about risk-based regulation, which I’m suddenly becoming interested in. I left some notes:

    • Thanks Hank — appreciate the compliment.

      As to risk-based regulation, I am not familiar with this term. I did read over your comment at Stoat with interest. Here is what I can say about risk and regulation, if not risk-based regulation.

      In a nutshell, if we can’t monitor and enforce the law or reg, we ain’t regulating it because its too big a risk for us to have a law or regulation in place in case bad things happen.

      In other words, if we have a law or reg to address something, we are liable for it if things go wrong. If we don’t have a law or reg to address something, hey, don’t look at us! It’s not our responsibility!

      That sounds crass, but it’s based on a modern reality.

      Government used to be much more involved in regulating everything in the area I work. Now, not so much for two reasons — ideology and practicality.

      There was a very big anti-regulation push on in governments after the Thatcher / Reagan / Mulroney era based on ideological commitments to small government.

      For practical reasons, primarily because of budget cuts due to the recession of the 90s, (ETA: due in part to ideological positions against government spending, and commitment to cuts to social spending, welfare, etc.) there were many deep cuts to government programs and the civil service. These cuts reduced our ability to monitor and enforce laws and regulations currently in effect. We progressively cut positions, including regulators and inspectors, to balance our budgets, and this made us less able to do the work we committed to as mandated in our laws and regs.

      As a result, our lawyers told us it opened us up to a great deal of liability if bad things happened that were covered by laws or regs and we didn’t do enough to prevent them. This led to years of deregulation of many of the things we used to regulate. I’ve sat in meetings where we trashed whole acts, and regs, line by line. Twice now. Covering I don’t know how many acts and regs.

      It wasn’t pretty and many of the front-line people who were involved in this wholesale deregulation processes were very very unhappy. Some resigned.

      I was a senior research officer at the time, doing the research on the various programs to back up the decisions, not a policy analyst, but I was involved in discussions around what could be cut and what had to be kept.

      Now we rely on other entities to regulate the service they provide, even though we fund them. Self-regulation. We even let our private service providers regulate themselves. We relied more on self-regulating professions, associations, etc. who are involved in providing the public service to follow their own professional standards, etc. We regulate very little compared to before. We fund the entity’s budget, and specific programs and set the larger strategic direction of the system, but let those who run them make the day to day decisions and regulate themselves.

      I can’t be more specific because I want to keep my work identity separate from my blogger identity so I can tell the truth, as I see it.

      As to how you regulate based on probability — the only thing that comes close in my experience as a Senior research officer / policy and program analyst / project manager is that I was part of developing our ministry’s business continuity plan, which was a plan for an emergency that took out our ability to function — such as a plane crash into our building (we are on a flight path) or a tornado (we are in the northern part of tornado alley) or a bomb by a whacked-out consumer of the public service we provide — the “black swan” events that have a very low probability of happening but very high cost if they did.

      IOW, anything that might destroy the building we work out of and thus prevent our employees from coming into work to do our stuff which involves providing some services to the public, some regulatory functions and overall strategic direction of the system we oversee. We were told that we had to do this because of the risk such an event posed to our ability to carry out our mandates. We don’t insure these services, but we have to have a plan in place in case the black swan event happens so that we can continue providing those mission-critical functions that the public relies on. We expected all the entities that we fund to do the same and in fact, i do believe we passed regs to force them to do so.

      The thinking is that you have to plan for these black swan events no matter how unlikely they are because if they happen and you have no plan in place, you will be liable for all the bad things that happen because you had no plan in place. The plan, the table-top exercises, and real life exercises we do to keep the plan up to date is our insurance against these events taking place.

      Don’t know if that helps at all or is of any interest.

  4. Very excellent, but there is a mistake. When you say
    For example, a denier may present climate change as “a natural phenomenon” and thus, the only real option is to “adapt”.
    In the anthropocene this is not correct. We can manipulate everything about our environment, we are just doing it by inadvertence today. This is a major change in outlook that humans had better adapt to.

    • HI, Eli:

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear.

      To me, the crux is 1) whether we acknowledge the reality of global warming and 2) what we view is possible to do to address it.

      There are degrees of acceptance of the reality of global warming / climate change and different recommendations based on that as to how or whether to address it.

      Some deny it altogether. They’re just lost causes and don’t want to do anything. It’s just a hoax, a fabrication, a plot by the evil socialist Hitlers out to steal your property… I would include those with a direct financial stake in the continued exploitation of fossil fuels in this group who deny AGW — them and the whacko-nutters who are primarily crackpots.

      Some accept that the climate is warming but argue that it is natural and beneficial. We need only adapt to it. Certainly not try to alter it. Scientists are mistaken about whether lil ‘ol CO2 could ever change the climate! Noes! It’s the stars, it’s Galactic Cosmic Rays, it’s 1500-year cycles of physical properties yet to be discovered! God would never let us ruin His Creation! Remember the rainbow at the end of The Flood!

      Some admit that the globe is warming and that CO2 is likely the cause but they say that we shouldn’t mitigate CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. They say we can only hope to adapt to the changing climate by, say, moving away from coasts, building dikes, changing what crops we grow, etc.

      Mitigation, by intervening in the market to affect the price of carbon or the use of it, would be an anathema. The lovely invisible hand of the market will intervene and everything will be hunky-dory. Really. Just wait and see! They say this as they sip their Randian/Greenspanian Kool-Aid and wave their copy of Atlas Shrugged in their face to cool off from the heat…

      Others argue that AGW is real and due to our actions and if we don’t intervene directly and in a coordinated fashion to limit / reduce our reliance on carbon based energy — aka mitigate — we will face severe consequences as our climate warms to potentially dangerous levels.

      They argue we need to intervene directly to mitigate the degree and impact of global warming. In other words, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, alter land use practices, etc. in order to reduce the degree of warming we face from our greenhouse gas emissions.

      The mistake is to argue that humans can’t and shouldn’t do anything to address our impact on the environment except “adapt”. In other words, no mitigation.

  5. Policy Lass,

    Great post. I agree with pretty much all of it.

    Not sure if you’re in Toronto or Ottawa (if I had to bet I’d say Ottawa based on the 250 km reference (Queen’s?), but down here in the big smoke we have something called the informed judgement matrix or IJM as the locals call it. basically it’s a tool used by policy wonks in regulatory design and enforcement types that incorporates the risk elements that Hank seems to be alluding to. if you’re a refinery dumping boatloads of nasty chemicals into the st. clair river your on one end. if you’re a restaurant dumping fry oil down the sewers your put on the other.

    i’m sure you can guess who gets a knock on the door. sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the big kid on the block.

    p.s. if I’ve got it wrong and you have the misfortune of living in Toronto drop me an email and we can trade war stories about working in sausage factories!

  6. I’m a policy-maker in a small pond (director of a California water supply/flood control district). From my side of the fence, staff seem to have a whole lot of control. They control the information I start out with, they control the reaction to my ideas, and probably most important, they control the speed at which things occur.

    On climate change issues, our subject area gives us a lot to say about adaptation, but not much about mitigation. We can reduce our own impacts, but we can’t impose a carbon tax to pay for water conservation, new water supplies, levees against increased flooding/sea level rise etc. I do think however that the public is much more motivated to consider adaption than mitigation, and acceptance of the need for adaptation will cause increased acceptance of AGW. I know the causation arrow should go the other way, but I think it doesn’t psychologically.

    On risk, we’re a flood control agency, we have to deal with risk. Whether we do it well is the challenge.

  7. Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids.

    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell
    to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally
    off topic but I had to tell someone!

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