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The Answer to Bad Public Policy Isn't Going to be Good Public Policy

There's a lot of deeply troubling systemic problems that are plaguing our country today. Many - if not most - are a result of bad public policy. But, even with a pedigree in Public Policy from a leading institution in the country and in the subject matter, I do not believe that public policy is the solution. Here's just a few reasons why.

It Takes Forever, If Ever.

Policy change, on its best day, is painfully slow, minimally more riveting than watching a turtle run a race. And that's assuming a political landscape that is incredibly welcoming to said policy. Bob Reich. a personal hero, an economic genius, the Former Secretary of Labor, is a relentless advocate for policy change. He's been tackling economic policy that has caused and exacerbated America's notorious Wealth Gap for over five decades. He playfully said, "If you ever want to know you were a failure, it's looking back and realizing you've been saying the same thing for 50 years, and nothing's changed."

It's Vulnerable to Polarization.

Given the toxic political polarization we see today, getting any policy through the door and across the floor with bipartisan support is a practical fantasy. (Which is a deeply disturbing reality worth its own discussion another day.)

It's Not Open to Experimentation.

But let's assume that this piece of policy does successfully run the gauntlet. In crafting that work, policy makers have to appear decisive and resolute, with ready answers at their fingertips for all manner of problems. As a result, an open and deliberate problem-solving approach, shaped by an intentional trial and error, is practically impossible to institutionalize in that sort an environment.

It's Subject to External Pressures.

Also, policies tend to be shaped by executive or legislative staff members who are removed from the details of implementation, yet under intense time pressures to deliver comprehensive solutions, or "plans". As a result, national policies are regularly based on assumption that get tested after they become law.

It Creates Impractical Applications.

Major initiatives advanced by governments begin with policy battles and end with programs planned and implemented through agencies or contracted to service providers. Public policies often lack a nuanced appreciation for ground level details. Rules and procedures often limit flexibility and responsiveness. And any modification at the local level may involve a long approval process.

It's Hard to Undo.

Even when policies are deeply flawed, it takes a monumental effort to correct them. Once a program is rolled out, with a budget and constituency to defend that budget, it will remain there almost regardless of its effectiveness. The primary feedback mechanism for policy makers - press reports and elections - punish failure and demand virtually instant results. Consequently, elected officials come to favor the short-term appearance of success over actual substantive change. This dynamic, understandably, distorts policy making.

It's Impact Can Stall.

Some ideas get off to a good start, but get watered down in their implementation. The problem may be that the agency or institution advancing the idea is unable to grow and maintain quality. As quality deteriorates, quality wanes. Or disaster strikes, and a fragile organization is washed away before its able to establish roots.

A Better Solution

Policy is better suited to codify a process that has work. Because policy is hardly effective unless the culture has adopted it.

Social entrepreneurs, using creative methods, trial and error, hands-on experimentation, and iteration, can fine tune solutions and innovate rapidly. And as communities benefit, societies improve, the culture will have embraced the notions that can, at that point, simply be codified as policy.


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