How can government solve the complex issues facing society?
It may be, relatively speaking, straightforward for a government to cut taxes or make the trains run on time but alleviating poverty, reducing crime or eliminating pollution are problems too difficult for government alone to solve. In a previous video post, I discussed how politicians react to public opinion by creating public policy. I argued for a complex relationship between public opinion and policy. I’m about to contradict myself….. this is not always the case. In some instances political parties attempt to react directly to public opinion and create straightforward policy solutions.
In Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement, author Don Lenihan argues that the ‘consumer model of politics’ is the wrong approach. In the consumer model, political parties try to address the very specific concerns of voters in hopes of winning their support. Instead of addressing the big, long term, complex issues facing society, parties try and focus on simple solutions while avoiding taking positions on anything that might lose them support.
Lenihan believes this model cannot be used to deal with the difficult problems society faces because simple solutions are generally not effective at addressing complex issues. To borrow from another book, Getting to Maybe outlines a simple problem like baking a cake beside a complex problem like raising a child. A one page recipe probably will not give you the information you need to raise a child who turns into a healthy, well adjusted adult.
Simple, Complicated and Complex Problems
|Baking a Cake
||Sending a Rocket to the Moon
||Raising a Child
|The recipe is essential
||Rigid protocols or formulas are needed
||Rigid protocols have a limited application or are counter-productive
|Recipes are tested to assure easy replication
||Sending one rocket increases the likelihood that the next will also be a success
||Raising one child provides experience but is not guarantee of success with the next
|No particular expertise is required, but experience increases success rate
||High levels of expertise and training in a variety of fields are necessary for success
||Expertise helps but only when balanced with responsiveness to the particular child
|A good recipe produces nearly the same cake every time
||Key elements of each rocket MUST be identical to succeed
||Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual
|The best recipes give good results every time
||There is a high degree of certainty of outcome
||Uncertainty of outcome remains
|A good recipe notes the quantity and nature of the “parts” needed and specifies the order in which to combine them, but there is room for experimentation
||Success depends on a blueprint that directs both the development of separate parts and specifies the exact relationship in which to assemble them
||Can’t separate the parts from the whole; essence exists in the relationship between different people, different experiences, different moments in time
From “Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed” (2006) Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Quinn Patton
Similarly, Lenihan argues societal problems cannot be solved by a government led effort which is focused on simple solutions designed first and foremost to help win re-election. Instead Lenihan believes true collaboration between government, citizen and stakeholder groups is needed to create effective policy solutions.
Lenihan does not just criticize the current state of policy making, he also offers a solution. He recommends a model of public engagement where governments have a real dialogue with citizens. Many books and experts suggest that government needs to do a better job of listening to people but Lenihan takes this approach a step further. Instead of just asking for citizen concerns or people’s suggested solutions (i.e. consultation) he proposes that government, the public and stakeholders collectively develop an action plan with each group committing to playing a role in solving the problems identified. This is the key distinction. Most public engagement strategies stop at gathering input from citizens and then it is government’s responsibility to react to this input. Lenihan’s approach gathers input from citizens then once this input is received citizens are asked to work with government on implementing solutions.
Seeing a book defend this approach is reassuring for staff of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council (WRCPC).
WRCPC, since its inception, has consistently followed this philosophy. Our projects regularly engage the public in the work of creating and implementing solutions to complex problems. Recently, for example, we created a plan to help children & youth involved the criminal justice system and the child welfare system (commonly known as crossover children because they ‘crossover’ from the child welfare system into the criminal justice system). The plan, like any good government strategy, was developed in consultation with the community but we echoed Lenihan’s approach and developed tasks for WRCPC and tasks for community agencies like Family and Children’s Services of the Waterloo Region. It is nice to know when asking our partners to implement solutions with us we are on strong intellectual grounding.
Rescuing Policy does an excellent job of conveying the importance of shifting away from the consumer model of politics and explaining at a high level an alternative approach to consulting with the public. However, the book fails at providing the tools for practitioners to easily replicate the public engagement methods discussed in the book. Towards the end of Rescuing Policy, Lenihan touches on his plans to release a manual or textbook on designing public engagement processes. When this textbook is complete it will hopefully aid policy makers to put into practice the ideas contained in Rescuing Policy.
Rescuing Policy is available free from The Public Policy Forum. Electronic copies are available online here or you can order a copy here. If you develop public engagement processes, or want the help change the landscape for how public engagement is carried out in our communities, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this insightful book.
Author: Anthony Piscitelli is Supervisor, Planning & Research with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council. He collaborates on all research efforts published by WRCPC in addition to running the office sports pools.