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Policymaking Is Both A Science & Art. Needs Fixing To Create Impact

India needs an enabling policy ecosystem, cored around strategic alignment between key

Photo Credit : Sanjay Sakaria


Most policies do not deliver the intended outcome.

Many are not holistic enough. Most others are designed badly. Poor implementation adds to the woes of the beneficiaries. 

The intangible cost of poor policy goes beyond numbers. People lose faith in the system. 

The long term effect perpetuates.

Policymaking is an engaging role, requires honest intent, evolved skill

Policy-making in the Indian context is often developed in distinct administrative siloes; even though most interventions have wider implications, affect several internal, and impact many external stakeholders.

Government makes complicated decisions, administrations have complexities to address. Public policy professionals play an essential role in the design and implementation of policies, programs, and projects. While the ecosystem drives the ideation, it is the capacity and the intent of the policymakers that defines the policies. 

A quick and cursory study of the several policies confirms that policymaking is flawed, policies are inept. There is more to policymaking than intent. 

Officials and politicians suffer a range of biases. Biases get embedded into decision making; something that imbalances design, depreciates implementation. As a result policymaking invariably falls short of the intended impact. 

Policymakers rarely take responsibility; oddly enough not held accountable 

If the policies fail they would have either moved on, or out. Naturally they focus on short-termism.

The problem is deeper; challenge is systematic.

A Crux ‘Behavioural Insight’ across 200 policymakers & practitioners focusing on ‘intent, approach and impact’ reveals that the policy framework pivoted on ‘behaviour’ science can improve policymaking, enhance impact. The study across 12 states, covering 300 different schemes highlights that ‘misaligned’ incentives can, and do facilitate biases, eventually perpetuate in the policymaking system. The study reveals that biases go beyond design. Implementation suffers because of ‘optimism’ biases, influencing critical choices. 

Bad policies meander, drift and fail 

The Crux study concludes that it is the lack of integration of knowledge, coupled with application into the ‘planning & action’ framework that adversely affects policies.

Bias is an ingrained feature of decision making. Influence, indifference and power substantiate entitlement, fuelling the bias. Policy makers have an inherent desire to preserve well established power, comfortable with status quo. The very nature of the bureaucracy discourages, in fact incentivised to ‘not’ challenge decisions.

Tackling bias is never easy. They creep in when the door is open. Biases are hard to spot in real time, agonising to recognise, even more difficult to weed out. Social psychology and behavioural decision theory has emerged as an important tool for choices, judgements and even decisions. 

Bureaucrats are cocooned in comfort 

Policymakers are humans and (are) prone to several biases, and as a result judgement error. The bureaucracy is notorious for over-estimating their own abilities, quality of their plans, and the likelihood of success of those plans. They often underprepare. Most look for; even seek information that confirms their existing views. The views shape what they ‘see’, and often get entrenched, and worsens.  Policymakers are unwilling to make course correction for being seen as admission of ‘making mistakes’. This is compounded by a lack of capacity in the implementation ecosystem. Distrust between the bureaucracy and the implementation partners, and inadequate collaboration thereof, further erodes impact. 

The public pays the price. 

Governments are particularly sensitive to admitting that its people are subject to bias. Policymaking hardly, if ever employs behaviour science and other tools like ‘collaborative-teaming’; devil’s advocacy etc. for collective reasoning and group decision-making. 

Government has some soul searching to do; and act decisively

Why policies are made in an opaque setting? How do we correct something that is hardly if ever acknowledged, never recognised? This can, and indeed does have profound implications for course correction and sustainable learning. Poor policies particularly hurt welfare related policies and adversely affect the poorest.

Much more needs to be embraced, specifically the trinity of transparency, accountability, and fair intent. Similarly to enhance transparency the government must throw open the policy making process, exposing its ‘thinking’ at the early stage. This will demonstrate its faith in the system and elevate the policymaking process. 

It is evident and undeniable that policies will be more effective when those who design and implement them have a deeper understanding and an accurate assessment of policy initiatives. Equally undeniable is the fact that policy professionals can make impassionate and unbiased decisions if they have a broader understanding of behavioural science, and related skills. 

The PM must, through an institutional framework address the several lacunas in policymaking. The policymaking institutions must apply insights, but more importantly address gaps by instituting the application in a more systematic and scientifically grounded methodology.

Strengthening policymaking framework is a socio-economic multiplier

Policy design is a series of simple tasks requiring collaborative and continuous engagement with a range of stakeholders, across multiple levels. 

Governance is normally concentrated (not dispersed), implementation is always highly dependent on local context. Successful implementation requires a collaborative engagement   with ‘downstream actors’ like the beneficiaries, ground level staff, local bodies & agencies.

Most governments have failed to recognise the challenge and policymaking continues denial.

Admission and recognition will only enhance its image. The public will see it as an important example of transparent, critical self-reflection, something long- overdue. Experts will interpret this move as an initiative to finally embrace a well-established scientific field with holistic implications for policy and practice. Most will see as an example of both. Beneficiaries will rejoice.

The government must go beyond 

Policy making is mostly about design and implementation, but more than both combined. However for the lack of capacity and selective indifference the desired scrutiny to the practicalities of implementation and feasibility is ignored. 

The PM has often talked about governance, followed that with actions. While the government is taking a keener interest in the policy formation, and proactively intervening in the implementation, we are yet to see a holistic governance framework that strengthens or even supports the framework. There is a need for a central “delivery unit”, an institutional establishment that tracks progress of policy implementation.

India needs an enabling policy ecosystem, cored around strategic alignment between key stakeholders.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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policymaking ecosystem stakeholders magazine 27 Sep 2021

Dr. Vikas Singh

The author is a senior economist, columnist, author and a votary of inclusive development

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