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The art and science of policymaking

Would you prefer a self-intuitive leader or an unprejudiced one, who welcomes multiple thoughts in decision-making?

The art and science of policymaking

There is a saying that in an autocracy, one person has his way; in an aristocracy, a few people have their way; in a democracy, no one has his way. Now, the question is, would you prefer a self-intuitive leader or an unprejudiced one, who welcomes multiple thoughts in decision-making?

I recently came across an interview with a well-known municipality representative of Nepal. He proudly said being a leader with precise visions, he does not need to take advice from others. This reality-based short story depicts and sums up our political condition in which leaders/power-holders generalize their interests as a group or community’s interest guided by their self-intuitive knowledge. I wonder why our political parties and leaders are evolving into cult leaders. Why are they so reluctant to listen to others to identify the real policy problems by diving into some basic questions like what is the context, who are the key actors and other stakeholders, what is the policy problem, what are the relevant variables and outcome criteria?

Policy problems have multiple realities. It is a universal truth that reality is multifaceted, and actors entertain different ways to understand the issues and employ several criteria to work out solutions. In the political arena, there are many situations that we cannot measure, classify, and understand thoroughly. A positivistic interpretation cannot unveil many dimensions of policy problems as people reflect their limited knowledge, time, and memory. It is crystal clear that this sort of practice to analyze a problem will ultimately lead to a conflict in society. Thus, policymakers should adopt a dynamic approach to deal with a web of underlying realities of problems.

The next most fundamental thing is that policy issues are value-laden. Social values and policy problems co-exist in parallel. Values include justice, freedom, respect, community, and responsibility. Something can be two or more different things at once when problems appear along with social issues. To say it precisely, diverse groups may not hold the same thoughts on the same political phenomena as they judge it based on their principles, beliefs, status and many other elements. The Gurung community might hold different views from the Newar community on the same subject matter. Thus, policy-makers should be ultra-conscious about not destroying social harmony and contracts.

In the policy universe, problems intertwine with each other. It means a problem may have more than one variable. Policy problems arise from sociological, psychological and economic systems. For instance, multiple causes may be behind youth unemployment. To find diverse causes of the problem, public officials have to go through research and analysis before making decisions. Understanding the dynamics of the issues helps design effective policies and prevent unintended consequences This is one of the fundamental ways to ensure the rationality of decisions with adequate evidence.

Decision-makers should accept that their knowledge is limited. In his decision theory called Bounded Rationality, Herbert Simon talks about how our knowledge is partially rational. Human beings attempt to satisfy their personal interests, rather than optimize solutions. We often tend to analyze each subject in terms of our individual interests. He further believes humans cultivate logic and reason based on prior knowledge and experience, which ultimately leads to a false sense of rationality because we do not have all the information available. Deborah Stone, a renowned scholar, identifies that poor decisions of those in political power are the main reason for unfairness and unrest rather than culture, geography, climate, or any other factor. Hence, policymakers should be open to suggestions and criticisms for a healthy democratic practice.

The involvement of diverse groups/peoples helps to strengthen democratic practices in decision-making. James Buchanan, a Nobel laureate, assumes that individual political actors are guided by their self-interest in choosing the course of action to their best advantage. Circumvention of this practice is essential in developing nations to foster good governance. There is an old Sanskrit proverb that it is only through the articulation of diverse opinions that truth will finally emerge. It shows how important communication is among diverse groups to keep petty interests of power holders in check. Frank Fisher has introduced the ‘Argumentative Turn’ technique to exchange ideas among decision-makers. This technique allows ample opportunities for constructive debate, discourse, and conversation promoting communication among diverse thoughts in policy analysis. The main idea is that reason/logic does not evolve in individualism but in collectivism. This methodology being humanistic, subjective, and non-deterministic would help promote healthy discourse on political controversies.  

Policymakers have to formulate policies in various situations. They should comply with the democratic spirit to ensure good governance in underdeveloped nations. There are a few things that policymakers should be aware of before making policies. The most fundamental thing is that policy problems have multiple realities with values. They should know the dynamic nature of problems. To overcome such political dilemmas, they must be mindful of their limited knowledge and allow adequate room for people in policymaking.