Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Book review

Review: Why Governments Get It Wrong. And How They Can Get It Right, by Dennis C. Grube

Patrick Diamond

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Mpho Mojapelo

| 5 mins read

The process of making public policy is an inescapably political endeavour. According to the political scientist, Harold Lasswell, in liberal democracies policy ultimately determines ‘who gets what, when and how’. Politics is concerned with the exercise of power. And power decides what issues make it onto the policy agenda.

Yet, despite the self-evidently political nature of policy making, policy analysts since the end of the Second World War became obsessed with removing politics from decision making. The new breed of technocratic policy experts believed that democratic politics would get in the way of making rational policy choices based on objective evaluation rather than ideological prejudice.

Dennis Grube, an Australian scholar now based at the University of Cambridge, is the latest writer to ‘bring politics back in’ to the practice of effective policy making. He draws on extensive experience as a public service practitioner in the Australian state of Tasmania, while incorporating insights from the academic literature to identify the ingredients of policy success. Grube has written a book that is both analytically rigorous and packed with practical insight for the budding policy maker. He emphasises that effective decision making requires policy makers to pay attention to the ‘fundamentals’, which means aligning problem definition, policy narrative and empirical facts with well-designed policy interventions. Grube uses the metaphor of ‘getting our ducks in a row’ to highlight what governments must do to minimise failure and maximise the chances of success.

The first of his ‘ducks’ is sharpening the definition of the policy problem by accurately framing ‘the actual problem the policy is trying to solve’ - a contested process, since it involves competing ideological judgements. Policy problems need to be constructed in ways that render those problems manageable and amenable to public intervention. Invariably, they are ‘in the eye of the beholder’. In liberal democracies, there is an ecosystem of political parties, non-governmental organisations, think tanks, consultancies and civil society organisations that compete to define problems, partly to advance their own agenda.

The second of the book's fundamentals is constructing the ‘narrative’ or story that motivates policy action. Grube alludes to David Cameron's success in passing UK equal marriage legislation in 2013, framing the issue in conservative terms as upholding the traditional institution of marriage, rather than safeguarding human rights or ‘equality’.

The third of Grube's ‘ducks’ relates to facts and evidence. A great deal of attention has been paid in the last thirty years to ‘evidence-based’ policy making. Yet, as Grube elucidates, scientific evidence in general and social scientific evidence in particular is shrouded in uncertainty. Data must be interpreted by the policy maker. Nor is evidence on its own usually enough – this was demonstrated in the Brexit debate.

Yet, even where governments manage to align narrative construction, credible evidence and effective problem definition, success in making policy is far from guaranteed. Good outcomes depend on that crucial fourth ‘duck’: the efficacy of the policy intervention itself. This is hard, since in liberal democratic governments, radicalism is constantly marginalised in the policy-making process owing to the technocratic compromise and ‘muddling through’ tendencies that are intrinsic to democratic politics. Sometimes, the politics are judged to be just too difficult. Yet, Grube's claim is that governments that align all four of his ‘ducks’ are more likely to achieve policy success.

Even so, it must be said that policy makers should learn to be humble about the practice of policy making in the real world. They should learn to use other tools, not least deliberative engagement with citizens, to make sense of the complex realities intrinsic to policy making. They should pay attention to values and culture which have a huge impact on policy effectiveness. As the former Whitehall official, Stephen Muers, recently argued policy makers must learn to, ‘take culture seriously’. In an era where policy fiascos and blunders appear to have markedly increased in UK governance, they should heed Wildavsky's warning and above all seek to ‘do no harm’.

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