Policy pOliCy poLicY: Policy wonks and the confusion of the wicked policy perspective


Policy, reforms, change, legislation, making things better, improvement, helping out, a better future, progress, it’s the right thing to do. Recent Australian PMs have gone on record as dreaming of being a philanthropists, of just wanting to lend a helping hand and being “from Queensland … and here to help“.


What is wrong with all these nice platitudes?


Unfortunately, all these sweet words are manifestations of the misguided political war cry that policy needs to be seen to be done. In some quarters a lack of policy is seen as inaction and atrophy and a sign of near political death.


So … we have the policieswe have passed more legislation … here a policy, there a policy, more policies, policies for everything, policies, policies, policies … all going … nowhere!


Why all this hyperactivity? Recall the flip side that … if it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it. So what is broke?


What is the reason for the … more policies for everything and policy needs to be seen to be done? Is it just so much symbolic illogic? A narrative for political existence and survival? A narrative for the justification of political survival in a modern world?


Fundamentally, a rational and analytical chasm has opened up between policy as something that needs to be seen being done and policy which actually addresses an actual problem and is structured to fix it.


Ironically modern perspectives of the problem are reduced to not enough policy, so that the solution is simply more policy. The consequences are ridiculous … The grass is greener on this side of the fence so we should all go to the other side of the fence – a new policy. The grass is green … It should be painted red … policy, policy, policy! … More policies, policies for everything. More policies, where there were once less. A big policy agenda. Problem solved. Political nirvana.


The problem is that many of the perpetrators of policy have lost perspective of what is broke … what constitutes a “problem”. The disconnect is between what is described as “making things better” and fixing something that is not working or is broken or is causing negative consequences.


This focus on making things better has emerged from the planning milieu, where policy wonks and wicked problems are de regur. Everything is esoteric and too complex so via a science of deliberative multi criteria analysis, prescribed policy wonks or planning experts achieve a new policy outcome which has more to do with intelligent design that rational analytical problem solving. Another narrative.


Because the planners have the laudable intention of making things better, any discord or criticism must be inherently evil, deserving the fiercest vilification and personal abuse where necessary to assuage the morality of the planner and to act as a deterrent to any mere mortal who might be tempted to appraise some exalted policy.


But by trying to make things better and adopting the apparently optimistic view of the future the planners and their political followers have completely missed the setting whereby some social conflict or disaccord existed.


The problem as a fundamental socio-economic malfunction is never recognised or addressed. The what? how? and why? of specific problems are never recognised … and never dealt with, fixed or solved. Rather, the wicked problem perspective leads to something completely different. The result is “something else”, another way, or a new policy straight out of a black box.


Subsequently, policies are propagated for everything … every which way. Just insert a word and the policy wonks will go into wicked mode and generate a policy, another narrative, to make things better. Alcohol consumption on Mars … policies galore. Speed limits under the Marianas Trench … policies in a few minutes. Think random policy generator, just insert random word, any word. It all seems rather trite, but it is worse than that.


Firstly, real problems are never addressed let alone solved. Over time issues only become worse, social costs mount up, transactions costs spiral and opportunities are lost.


Cynically, the policy propagation spiral might be seen as fundamental rent seeking. And unfortunately the perspective of the wicked policy problem is first and foremost to simply drown an issue in money. Finance and cost effectiveness are apparently irrelevant when the policy wonk has the moral high ground of just making things better. It would be heatless to think otherwise or question the intent. Rationality and economics are on another planet. Intelligent design rules … all we need is a bit of faith and hope.


The irony is that a good many social issues have been blown out of all proportion with huge public expenditures and monstrous spillover costs … to maintain the façade of the narrative, while a straightforward rational analysis would yield a simple solution with little public cost and socio-economic distortion.


In following posts the damage of the planning policy wonk perspective will be elucidated and the straightforward policy alternative illustrated.




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