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.
For instance, according to the editors of the magisterial The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy 'the practice of public policy making is largely a matter of persuasion.' Why is this the case? They provide this compelling answer:
' To make policy in a way that makes it stick, policy makers cannot merely issue edicts. They need to persuade people who must follow their edicts if those are to become general practice. In part, that involves the persuasion of the public at large...' (page 5).
Students of public opinion have always known this. But technical specialists in different areas of public policy often struggle with the reality. In fact, some seek to deny it. They find it messy, and it is. They would rather do the things they are comfortable with. But there is no escaping the truth: those who care about sustainable results will have to face the fact that when you practice policy you are in the persuasion business.
Photo Credit: Trevor Samson, 2002 (WB)