How do we get governments to make better decisions?

This is a guest post by Chris Koski (left) and Sam Workman (right), discussing how to use insights from punctuated equilibrium theory to reform government policy making. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Koski Workman

Many people assume that the main problem faced by governments is an information deficit. However, the opposite is true. A surfeit of information exists and institutions have a hard time managing it.  At the same time, all the information that exists in defining problems may be insufficient. Institutions need to develop a capacity to seek out better quality information too.

Institutions, from the national government, to state legislatures, to city councils – try to solve the information processing dilemma by delegating authority to smaller subgroups. Delegation increases the information processing capacity of governments by involving more actors to attend to narrower issues.

The delegation of authority is ultimately a delegation of attention. It solves the ‘flow’ problem, but also introduces new ‘filters’.  The preferences, interests, and modes of information search all influence the process. Even narrowly focused smaller organizations face limitations in their capacity to search and are subject to similar forces as the governments which created them – filters for the deluge of information and capacity limitations for information seeking.

Organizational design predisposes institutions to filter information for ideas that support status quo problem definitions – that is, definitions that existed at the time of delegation – and to seek out information based on these status quo understandings.  As a result, despite a desire to expand attention and information processing to adapt to changes in problem characteristics, most institutions look for information that supports their identity.  Institutional problem definitions stay the same even as the problems change.

Governments eventually face trade-offs between the gains made from delegating decision-making to smaller subgroups and the losses associated with coordinating the information generated by those subgroups.

Governments get stuck in the same ruts as when the delegation process started: status quo bias that doesn’t adjust with change problem conditions.  There is a sense among citizens and academics that governments make bad decisions in part because they respond to problems of today with the policies of 10 years ago.  Government solutions look like hammers in search of nails when they ought to look more like contractors or even urban planners.

Governments should not respond simply by centralizing

When institutions become stultified in their problem definitions, policymakers and citizens often misdiagnose the problem as entirely a coordination problem.  The logic here is that a small group of actors have captured policymaking and are using such capture for their own gain.  This understanding may be true, or may not, but it leads to the “centralization as savior” fallacy.  The idea here is that organizations with broader latitude will be better able to receive a wider variety of information from a broader range of sources.

There are two problems with this strategy.  First, centralization might guarantee an outcome, but at the expense of an honest problems search and, likely, at the expense of what we might call policy stability.  Second, centralization may offer the opportunity for a broader array of information to bear on policy decisions, but, in practice will rely on even narrower information filters given the number of issues to which the newly centralized policymaking forum must attend.

More delegation produces fragmentation

The alternative, more delegation, has significant coordination challenges as we find bottlenecks of attention when multiple subsystems bear on decision-points.  Also, simply delegating authority can predispose subsystems to a particular solution, which we want to avoid.

We’d propose: Adaptive governance

  • Design institutions not just to attend to problems, but to be specifically information seeking. For example, NEPA requires that all US federal decision-making regarding the environment undergo some kind of environmental assessment – this can be as simply as saying “the environmental will not be harmed” or as complex as an environmental impact statement.  At the same time, we’d suggest greater coordination of institutional actions – enhance communication across delegated units but also better feedback mechanisms to overarching institutions.
  • Institutions need to listen to the signals that their delegated units give them. When delegated institutions come to similar conclusions regarding similar problems, these are key signals to broader policymaking bodies.  Listening to signals from multiple delegated units allows for expertise to shine.  At the same time, disharmony across delegated units on the same problems is a good indicator of disharmony in information search.  Sometimes institutions respond to this disharmony by attempting to reduce participation in the policy process or cast outliers as simply outliers.  We think this is a bad idea as it exaggerates the acceptability of the status quo.
  • We propose ‘issue bundling’ which allows for issues to be less tied up by monolithic problem definitions. Policymaking institutions ought to formally direct delegated institutions to look at the same problem relying upon different expertise.  Examples here are climate change or critical infrastructure protection.  To create institutions to deal with these issues is a challenge given the wide range of information necessary to address each.  Institutions can solve the attention problems that emerge from the multiple sources by creating specific channels of information.  This allows for multiple subsystems  – e.g. Agriculture, Transportation, or Environmental Protection – to assist institutional decision-making by sorting issue specific – e.g. Climate Change – information.

Our solutions do solve fundamental problems of information processing in terms of sorting and seeking information – such problems are fundamental to humans and human-created organizations.  However, while governments may be predisposed to prioritize decisions over information, we are optimistic that our recommendations can facilitate better informed policy in the future.

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Filed under agenda setting, public policy

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