Does the state of public opinion on a public policy issue create obligations for political leaders, obligations they ignore at their peril? This is an issue being debated in the United States right now about a specific public policy controversy – gun control – but the core issue applies everywhere. In the specific case of the United States, many readers will know that there was an attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks before you can buy guns online or at gun shows. The legislation was blocked in the US Senate in spite of the fact that opinion polls say again and again that 90 per cent of Americans polled support the measure. So, the question is being asked and debated: how can 90% of the people support a measure and it does not become law? Very often the question is asked with real heat. Now, we are not going to get into the Byzantine complexities of American politics. What I am interested in is bringing to your attention what professional political scientists who blog have been saying about the core, universally relevant issue: does the state of public opinion create unavoidable obligations for political leaders?
Yesterday marked the launch of the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI), produced by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) with funding from Irish Aid and DFID. It looks like it could become one of the more useful annual league tables.
It may not be seen as a progressive view in the UK, but I’m a big league table fan, especially when they’re combined with access to new information. They use political rivalry to motivate politicians, the media love them, they allow good guys to be praised, as well as under-performers to be slapped, and they hand civil society some useful ammunition. The post2015 circus might be well advised to spend more time designing an effective league table, rather than adding yet more issues to its Christmas tree.
With Alessandro Olper*
Mass media plays a crucial role in distribution of information and in shaping public policy. Theory shows that information provided by mass media reflects its incentives to provide news to different groups in a society and in turn shape these groups’ influence on policy making.
This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).
In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.
The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.
"Associations may socialise individuals into practising core civic and democratic values, such as tolerance, dialogue and deliberation, trust, solidarity, and reciprocity."
I'd mentioned in a previous post that I had a few more thoughts on this report on citizen engagement from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC) at the UK's Institute of Development Studies (IDS). In light of recent conversations at the Bank regarding civil society, I've been thinking about the significance of framing civil society in instrumental terms (i.e., as a means toward an end in achieving sectoral reforms) vs. framing it as a fundamental institution of good governance.
In my previous post I discussed the importance of harmonizing national/regional development goals and priorities with local needs and aspirations and mentioned the Indian State of Kerala that has utilized the decentralized platform to integrate social accountability measures into local governance planning. In this blog, I will summarize the Kerala experience, drawing from the paper on the subject by S.M Vijayanand.
On Saturday, June 26th, nearly 4,000 Americans from all walks of life participated in an all-day country-wide deliberation on the nation's fiscal future. Town hall meetings held in 19 sites occupied the main stage for the day, with smaller scale discussions in more than 40 additional communities across the country and online venues for participatory input as well. The event, organized by AmericaSpeaks had all the markers of political deliberation, American-style: electronic keypads and networked computers that lent a technologically updated verisimilitude to George Gallup's idea of palpating the "pulse of democracy" and, of course, lots of political contestation (more on this below).
In an article last week in the Ghanaian Chronicle, two parliamentarians called upon the media to educate the public on parliament’s role and procedures. This plea sounded very familiar after hearing similar statements from Ghanaian politicians interviewed last summer as part of the AudienceScapes project. Several of the policymakers complained that part of the challenge of communicating about development issues with the public is how little people understand the structure or responsibilities of the various government agencies working on key policy issues like health, education, agriculture, or trade. As one Ghanaian policymaker lamented, very few people know about key elements of the policy process including the decision-making process, budgeting, and actual government activities.
Our good friend Amartya Sen checks-in recently with an essay in the New York Review of Books (March 26, which I am just getting to). Our good friend, because as a leading economist he is also a serious and long standing student of development challenges given his work on poverty, income distribution, famine, and so on. The occasion of this particular NYRB essay is the ongoing financial crisis. In it, he addresses recent calls for a “new economics,” as exemplified in the "New World, New Capitalism" symposium held in Paris in January, hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair. The idea, as Blair proposed, is to call for a new financial order based on “values other than the maximum short-term profit.”
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.
In March, Jeffrey Sachs published his latest book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet – an urgent plea for societies across the globe to reduce and better manage their impact on the earth’s ecosystems if we want to survive and prosper in an ever more crowded world.
As Sachs warns, continuing ‘business as usual’ will make life on our planet increasingly unsustainable. Air pollution and global warming present the biggest risks. But as humans have come to use almost any natural resource intensively, there are also major risks related to the availability of water and of fertile top-soil. At the same time, Sachs argues that we have the technical tools and the economic means to save the planet and to accommodate a rising global population – as well as increasing global wealth and rising consumption in today’s poorer countries.
I think it is safe to say that on average religious faith plays a bigger role in public life in most developing countries than in the West or in places like China and Russia. In these latter societies, secular humanism appears to reign supreme.