Policy analysis needs to reflect the social change that is always underway

Yesterday I promised a second post on taking the guesswork out of policy.

Here’s the starting point: effective policies reflect both physical (or natural) and social realities.

We’re rather partial to thinking that the physical realities are immutable: f=ma; E=mc2, etc., for once and all times and for any and all places.

But the social realities are another matter. They reflect cultural distinctions; differences in the fundamental approach to governance; the level of economic development; social justice issues, and much more.

And these social realities are more often than not, in a state of constant flux. They can and do change in response to the changing ethnic mix of a country and its age profile, as these in turn result from legal and illegal immigration and emigration and other factors such as the quality of healthcare, especially for the newborn. They change in response to economic growth and the distribution and redistribution of that new wealth across society. They change as this change and redistribution of wealth works through the nation’s diet and its exercise patterns and therefore its public health. They evolve as populations leave rural, individual farms to move into megacities, and in so doing move from independence to interdependency. They may forced to change in response to environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity and habitat. They also change in response to changes in policy, which often embody unintended consequences.

It therefore stands to reason, then, that the kind of analysis Mr. Matthews proposes to underpin the development of policy should have a corresponding dynamic dimension. Analysis to guide the policy decisions is likely to need frequent revisiting, or else embody a dynamic, predictive element.

Quite a challenge! But not one we can duck if we want to take the fullest measure of the benefits of scientific and technological advance, and the social change they prompt and allow, while minimizing any risks. Ideally, we’re asking that our policies help us maintain a needed measure of stability in our society, but that at the same time they not stifle innovation and creativity. Finding this adaptive sweet spot won’t be easy. Most likely, it’ll require continuing adjustment and lots of discussion.

Come to think of it, maybe that puts some of the guesswork back into policy.


Oh, a final footnote: readers might take note of Amanda Lynch’s comment on the previous post. You’ll discover that she and her co-author Rob Brunner, in their excellent book, Adaptive Governance and Climate Change, published by the American Meteorological Society and The University of Chicago Press, have dealt with this subject at length (my enthusiasm for this “new” idea notwithstanding).

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One Response to Policy analysis needs to reflect the social change that is always underway

  1. From a systems perspective, Ms Lynch’s strikes me as a bubble off. Virtually everyone agrees with mitigation and adaptation – however much they might argue with the costs of specific actions – to reduce vulnerability to weather events (climate is macro, weather is the collection of micro-phenomena that we experience daily). But when she goes on to cite reduction of GHGs as an agreed upon criterion, I respectfully disagree. This statement is clearly a case of bounded rationality – agreed upon in her world perhaps, but neither universally accepted nor, I believe, universally acceptable.

    Further, Ms Lynch seems to limit the domain of inquiry about a policy’s effectiveness – for example, I’m not sure her policy inquiry would look at the impacts of reducing GHGs on the poor in developing countries (let alone the poor in the US). A much better approach (see for example Meadows’ book on “Thinking in Systems”) is to step back from the speculative and find broad areas of real agreement. Perhaps more energy efficiency, or using natural gas instead of oil – and then do what Matthews suggests – look at what happened and govern by a continuous-improvement model.

    Lest some conclude that I’m a denier, I’m not. But I have a healthy respect for the great uncertainties in model-derived worst cases, and an even greater respect for the certainties of damage to those who can least afford it from some of the policies being proposed.

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