Finding policy that’s built to last

What policymakers could learn from buying a house

Mitzi Bolton

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

4 August 2015

You wouldn’t buy the first and only house a real estate agent shows you, so why are policymakers so quick to jump on policy that is today’s solution, but tomorrow’s problem?

Crafting public policies that will meet the needs of current and future populations is by no means an easy feat. More often than not there is no ‘right’ policy; societies’ needs shift with time, so striving to find it can feel like being lost in the Labyrinth. Yet, people desire the ‘right’ policy and berate policymakers when it isn’t delivered, so what we get often get instead is the right policy, for right now – something to quell the fires of public opinion and poor media coverage.

This approach doesn’t really serve anyone well. Yes, we get a ‘solution’ today, but quite often today’s solutions are the cause of tomorrow’s problems. Perhaps there are lessons that we all, the general public and policymakers alike, could learn from buying a house.

If you want to buy a house, you don’t buy the first one you see because the agent tells you this is the best and only option. You don’t pick a suburb because your mother likes it or a style of property because it’s currently in vogue.  Rather, you think about why you’re buying a house, how long you might want to live there or own it for, who or what might live there with you, if you want a garden or a garage, if it’s a safe neighbourhood, if your quality of life will be improved by the purchase.

You look into your finances, see how much you have saved, what kind of loan you can get with your income, and make an educated guess as to whether you’re likely to be able to rely on that income into the future. Then you consider your options, inspect a few properties, and when you’ve found something that meets most of these requirements, you put in an offer.

It takes time to do all this thinking, identifying, and comparing of options. So why do it? Most people would prefer not to spend their evenings scanning Internet sites, Saturday mornings going from inspection to inspection, or for that matter having to deal with estate agents. And the worst that can happen? The worst case scenario? Is that if you make a poor choice, if you hate it, you just move again.

But you do invest a considerable amount of time in developing an informed opinion. You don’t just buy the first house you see. And you do this because there are considerable economic, emotional, and social costs associated with buying and moving house. While you could just move again, it is not a costless exercise. So, it seems prudent to invest some time in considering your current needs and reasonably anticipating your future ones. After all, if options exist to address both now, why wouldn’t you preference these?

Making uninformed policy decisions is like buying the first house you see. Policy decisions can be remade, but doing so will be costly, stressful, and ultimately unnecessary had the initial thinking been turned to both the current and future needs of society. Wouldn’t you rather policymakers considered all the available options before choosing the house, or policy, society has to live with?

When policymakers apply Ecologically Sustainable Development principles during the policy development process it helps them to make sure that they do this.  The problem is that, despite this approach being accepted and internationally agreed to by many countries, these principles are not being applied.

Current public policy development approaches tend to focus on diving into solutions to address short term symptoms, rather than assessing the evidence to understand the issue holistically and basing choices on balanced consideration of the broader ranging consequences and longer term needs of all.  In effect, public policy development has become a series of, sometimes very costly, poorly monitored, social experiments with no ethics approval. As a result, society reaps poorer outcomes. We, through the governments we elect and institutional approaches we accept, are collectively buying the first house we see without consideration of its suitability now and into the future.

Why do we accept this incomplete approach to determining the rules and structure of our society when we don’t have to? How can we better use the available knowledge to inform our decisions and achieve more balanced outcomes? It is questions such as these which must be answered, to ensure that when those acting on our behalf decide which metaphorical houses we all have to live in, they do so in a more considered way. If they did that, perhaps society would finally find its ‘forever home’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

 

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