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Monday, May 02, 2005

Choice and public policy

It's an official "Bank holiday" in the UK today (May Day), which allows a little bit more time to lounge around the local coffee shop and do a bit of extended newspaper reading. I put that time to good use my reading an article in the Guardian about the use of "choice" in British public policy. The article is well worth the read by anyone interested in how policy options for public services might be more effectively designed. The fact that I'm going to lecture tomorrow on American domestic policy perhaps added to my interest in the piece. But before I get down to preparing my notes for that session, I thought I'd post two observations generated by that article.

First, it's increasingly clear that public policymaking in the UK and the US are quite different in ways that go well beyond just institutional differences. When thinking about American public policymaking, I'm almost always forced to the conclusion that the entire process is driven by the dynamics of interests and ideologies. In the American Government textbook chapter on domestic policy (for which I have primary responsibility), we focus on the myth of "government as a necessary evil" to help students understand why American public policy is the way it is. That the fundamental assumption, most explicitly held by those on the right but also implicit in the liberal perspectives on the left, does play a major role in shaping policies in the area of health care, welfare, and even education. It is part of American political culture, and it's used by various interests and ideologues whenever policy issues are debated. You can put a thoughtful, well designed policy proposal on the table for discussion, but eventually it's the push and pull of interests and ideologies that determine the specifics of any proposal that finally passes. In contrast, the policymaking system in the UK seems more likely to foster the passage of carefully designed policies and programs. In a sense, much of the battle over the details of public policy are worked out before the proposal is actually tabled for discussion, and the debate is less likely to lead to alterations. This is institutionalized through the use of Green Papers and White Papers in which Governments articulate proposals that are in the formative (Green) stage for are in the about-to-be-proposed-and-ready-for-comment (White) stage. On the surface at least, the UK approach seems more sensible and perhaps less "messy" than the US process. The question is whether the end results are better or worse in either approach. That's an empirical question and probably needs to be answered on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, I suspect the answer would favor the UK approach....

My second observation after reading that article is that it is about time Albert O. Hirschman received recognition as perhaps one of the most influential political economists of our time. I guess this would involve something in the order of a Nobel Prize, and if so it would be well deserved. Hirschman's work on "exit, voice and loyalty" is featured in the article, but that is only one of his many notable contributions to the way we think about public policy, organizational life and human behavior in general. It would be a shame if his contributions were overlooked much longer....

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