Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

10 December 2019

Governments around the world are facing new and wicked policy problems. With rapid technological change, policymakers have come to rely on ‘smart’ solutions in combination with old models of thinking, but this will only perpetuate existing challenges, Kris Hartley writes.

The occasion of Policy Forum’s fifth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on policy-making over the last five years and to indulge in a discussion about current and imminent policy crises – about which there is still much to consider.

How states govern is changing. Early in the post-war period, state-driven interventionist policy laid the foundation for decades of economic growth and structural transformation, particularly in the miracle moment of the post-war west and the more recent rise of Asia.

Within that model, the direct involvement of government in funding research and development proved to be a crucial catalyst for innovation, from America’s tech sector – through military spending – to South Korea’s chaebol.

In both cases, a targeted version of state-driven shock therapy jump-started innovation, with private investment and entrepreneurship chasing the consequent market opportunities. This set into motion a development process that could largely sustain itself in the long run without as much direct intervention.

Common in the modern era are more indirect policy tools for fostering innovation. These include education and training, market-making and platform hosting – civic tech is one example – and participatory policy-making that brings together insights from multiple sectors.

More on this: How should technocrats count the true costs of cooling the climate?

At the precipice of the new millennium’s third decade, it is fitting to consider whether public policy models can keep pace with what appears to be an unfettered transformation in industry, particularly innovation-intensive sectors like technology, sustainability, and biomedical sciences.

When considering this question, the pendulum effect – the idea that movement in one political or policy direction will eventually ‘swing back’ in a dichotomous system – is a well-worn but relevant analogy.

The post-war era saw the creation of government programs and multilateral institutions to facilitate development. However, decades of such efforts eventually elicited howls of protest from market fundamentalists and small-government scolds.

By the 1980s, governments had internalised these criticisms and the pendulum swung away from state interventionism. As privatisation and public sector derivatives of neoliberalism emerged, institutions as the ‘rules of the game’ became an essential tool of governance. They provided guardrails where the state withdrew and steered the private sector to operate within certain bounds of political acceptability.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the pendulum seemed due for a swing back, but instead, it settled in the centre, with hybrid models like public-private partnerships and collaborative governance dominating the policy-making landscape.

Can we apply these old models to the new mandates of governance? There is rarely a revolutionary idea regarding economic governance models anymore – the boundaries are etched on one side by central planning and the other by laissez-faire capitalism, with nearly every point on the pendulum having been tried somewhere.

More on this: The rise of ‘big other’ smart cities in China

One thing, however, is new.

The complexity and scale of 21st-century policy problems are unprecedented. Issues in routine discussion among policymakers and the media, and even around kitchen tables, include climate change, socio-economic inequality, safety and security, public health, and a host of other wicked problems lacking clear solutions.

Many of these issues lack a definition on which everyone can agree or consensus on whether they even exist and need to be solved. They will indeed be the 21st century’s most difficult tests of societal adaptability.

A principal challenge in addressing these wicked problems is the time horizon for planning. Quarterly earnings drive management decisions in the private sector, and curiously, the public sector seems similarly shortsighted. In democratic systems, elected leaders always have an eye on the next election.

The American presidential campaign season is approaching two years in length – to the glee of cable news companies but the dismay of everyone else.

Wicked problems call for governments to think beyond election cycles. Public projects in infrastructure, healthcare, and education often take decades to design, stress-test and implement, and the impacts last far beyond one typical term of political office.

The old line of thought that treats public organisations like businesses has not only gutted state capacity but also transformed how public value is defined – and more consequentially, who should deliver it. Citizens are now conceptualised as clients and governments as producers. This consequences of this shift in the citizen-government relationship cannot be overstated.

Insistence on a universal management style relevant across the public and private sectors is one of the most stubborn obstacles to government adaptability in the face of wicked problems. Re-orienting the policy gaze towards broader public value rather than on short-term fiscal feasibility, efficiency, and political expediency could be the foundation for radically transforming policy-making.

Another problem facing the policy landscape is the temptation to rely on technocracy. The case of smart cities is illustrative of the related pitfalls, luring some governments into the mistaken belief that technology can deliver solutions where deeper-seated structural problems lurk. Can we nameplate every new innovation as ‘smart’ while expecting it to redeem outdated policy thinking?

Old ways of thinking about and making policy were built for a different era. Do we continue down this road, hoping that doing the same things again and again, only ‘better’ this time, will push society over some imagined threshold? Policymakers are still doing the wrong things – only more quickly and more cheaply.

As such, the challenge of the 21st century will not be whether society can accomplish ever more technological breakthroughs, but whether governments recognise the limitations of rampant technocracy and continue to seek more transformational solutions to wicked problems.

For better but more for worse, technocracy is here to stay. Luddite political pushback will be a growing reality and technological change will outpace its own socio-political feasibility. Policy-making is in need of a good wash, but smart streetlights do not come with hoses. Something has to give.

In all, the future demands new ideas. Unless there is a radical change to the policy-making paradigm, governments are stuck with the probable reality that humankind cannot simply out-digitise its own flaws.

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