After years of feeling that its policies were unfairly criticized by civil society organizations, the Bank is now ‘turning the tables’ by being formally asked to critique civil society ideas and papers. Likewise, after years of feeling ‘shut out’ and ignored by Bank experts, CSOs are confidently seeking Bank views on their macro- economic research findings. This trend is best exemplified by the launches of books written by well known CSO leaders at the Bank’s Infoshop over the past two years. These include the launch of “From Poverty to Poverty” by Duncan Green (Head of Research for Oxfam/GB) in November 2008, “Development Redefined” by John Cavanaugh (Director of the Institute for Policy Studies) and Robin Broad (Professor of International Development at American University) in February 2009; and "Unheard Truth” by Irene Khan (Secretary General of Amnesty International) in October 2009. In all three cases, Bank staff were asked to be discussants and offer their critiques of the books.
Economists dominate international development, and, in the case of the World Bank, well, that is an instance of full spectrum dominance. In an article in Public Choice (2010) 142:1-8, titled 'Persuasion, slack, and traps: how can economists change the world?', Bryan Caplan has some bad news as well as some good news.
The bad news is a restatement of the argument of his The Myth of the Rational Voter (Caplan 2007): "I argue that economically inefficient policies survive by popular demand. The public systematically misunderstands economics - and probably many other policy relevant subjects - leading voters to support policies contrary to their best interests. I also maintain that the public's misconceptions are, in a sense, wilful. Most people embrace political and economic beliefs on the basis of their emotional appeal, not dispassionate analysis."
The holy trinity of media effects research is "agenda setting - priming - framing." We've used all of these terms at some point in this blog. Since they are central to all kinds of communication work - and policy work, to quite some extent - we'll introduce all three a little more thoroughly, starting with agenda setting.
Agenda setting means the ability of the mass media to bring issues to the attention of the public and, related, of politicians. The basic claim is that as the media devote more attention to an issue, the public perceives the issue as important. When the media take up a specific topic - such as climate change, or manager bonuses - they make us think about it. The theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their seminal study of the role of the media in the 1968 Presidential campaign in the US ("The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media").
As readers of this blog will have realized, we have been watching with keen interest the effort to reform the health care system in the United States in order to pull out generalizable lessons for reform efforts elsewhere. As you must also know, over the month of August that reform effort ran into some turbulence, with lively town-hall meetings, and the rise of a blocking coalition. The outcome remains in the balance as I write.
Now, other students of the process have offered one explanation of the current challenges faced by this particular reform effort. They say that much of the effort concentrated for a long time on the Inside Game, that is getting the United States Congress to act, and keeping the discussion within authoritative state institutions. According to these observers, reformers ignored the Outside Game...building a reform coalition within the broader society, and shaping public opinion. That supposedly gave opponents of reform the chance to build what they hope will be a blocking coalition, frame the reform effort negatively and so on. These observers believe that the Outside Game is now on, but some damage was done.
As one observes the practice of policy in many contexts - including policy responses to the current global financial crisis - it is amazing to see how many expert advisers still see policy making and policy execution as a matter of command or the crude manipulation of incentives. Force relies on the coercive powers of the state: if you want citizens or groups of them to do something simply insist on compliance, and deploy the full apparatus of state power. Failing that, you manipulate incentives, especially financial incentives and citizens will fall in line. Expert systems are comfortable with either approach because each is something they understand and can easily deploy. And, to be fair, you can make and introduce policies by using force or manipulating incentives. Then you wait and see how far those approaches take you. But there is one big lesson coming out of policy studies: force and the manipulation of incentives can only take you so far.
The presidential election campaign in the United States is suffocating. You can't escape it anywhere, even when on vacation outside the US. Everyone is absorbed in it, I find. They want to talk about it; they want to watch CNN coverage of it nonstop. Now, for the issues we discuss in this blog the campaign is a good thing, but it is also a bad thing.
The presidential campaign is a good thing because it showcases some of the dynamics that we seek to draw attention to here. First, it shows the importance of public opinion in governance. In a sense, the entire campaign can be seen as an attempt to shape public opinion in rival directions by two well-funded campaigns.
"Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense" - V.O. Key said that in 1961 in his book Public Opinion and American Democracy. It reminded me of the discussion that Sina, Taeku, and I have had on this blog with regard to John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. When reading this eminent work, I had been surprised how little influence the media and public opinion were supposed to have on policy making. According to Kingdon, the will of the public had considerably smaller effects on policy than the President, Capitol Hill, and lobbyists in the U.S. of the 1970s, putting policy making somewhat closer to nonsense than it should be.
When you're advocating for a better understanding of the media's role in policy making and governance reform, nothing is as disheartening as a well done study that questions the media's role on the basis of sound evidence. Even when you can make a good argument that the study doesn't tell the whole story - you just know that experts in policy making and in academia will buy into what that study argues.
Almost everywhere, political leaders don't work with the strange animal known as 'the Public'. They work with 'key stakeholders' when they have to. And they prefer to decide a policy then 'consult' key stakeholders.