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If Force and Incentives Fail...Then What?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

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)


Submitted by s masty on
Asked if he believed in clubs for women, comedian W.C. Fields replied, 'only if all other methods of persuasion fail.' Governments can and do use brute force, but if governments want the active support of coalitions of stakeholders, rarely can they rely on top-down commmunication alone. Metternich said 'you can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it,' meaning force has its limits. Consensus is built by dialogue, ensuring that every stakeholder gets some benefit, or at least enough stakeholders. Yes, that means persuasion to show people how they stand to benefit from change. But also it often requires adjusting our offers to suit their demands. I recently attended a seminar by a Western government, asking NGO types how to reduce islamist violence and moderates' support for radicalism. immediately the NGOs said we needed to change the substance of Western policies re Palestine, etc. the hosts said that was out of the question. Unarticulated, they wanted an incantation, or magic spell, to communicate muslims into obedience. Lots of luck. Modern media permits the world to see things it does not like, which are issues of substance. Sometimes any amount of mere persuasion will fail. As David Ogilvy liked to say, 'nothing kills a bad product like good advertising.' As Sina wisely tells us, effective change has a political basis and not in party politics per se. It requires, yes, persuasion to show people a different and possible reality, then dialogue/negotiation to build buy-in, consensus, coalitions and sustainability. Sometimes it needs persuasion alone, sometimes deal-making. If we go in looking for an incantation, we are likely to emerge disappointed.

Submitted by chinweike on
I totally agree with you. An optimal point needs to be sought if an policy will see the light of the day. It is not just enough to stick some rules down on paper. People needs to be persuaded into believe in it. Thanks for sharing Chinweike.

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