16 July 2010

The unimportance of outcomes

President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought Egypt dictatorship, economic ruin and humiliation in the six-day war with Israel. On his sudden death from a heart attack in 1970 Egyptians erupted in grief; some 5m people mobbed the funeral. His successor, Anwar Sadat, freed political prisoners, revived the economy and won a peace agreement with Israel that got back what Nasser had lost. When he was assassinated in 1981, Egypt fell eerily silent. His funeral was attended by foreign leaders but very few of his own people. After Mubarak (subscription), 'The Economist', 15 July
Charisma, televisual appeal, soundbites or superficiality of any sort are not a sound basis for choosing policy. Currently though, we have little alternative; even those of us who aren't Egyptians. We are allowed to choose policymakers rather than policies; and we choose them on the basis of image at worst, or their stated policy priorities or ideological leanings at best. Rarely are we given the chance to target desirable outcomes.

The reasons for this are mostly historical. People were less educated and had less time to take an interest in policy. But we ought now to be in a position at least to move toward outcome-based policy. That would mean public participation in the choosing and prioritising of social and environmental goals. Social Policy Bonds lend themselves to a gradual transition to this sort of policymaking: by focusing on outcomes to be targeted they would be more transparent than the current policymaking process. They would generate more consensus, or at least - and, just as important - buy-in, for chosen goals. A transition to a Social Policy Bond regime would be quite easy to arrange, with funding to existing activity-based bodies (mostly government agencies) being reduced gradually, at the same time as funds for Social Policy Bond redemption rise. (See my book for further details.)

Nasser is not the only charismatic personality in recent history who led his people to disaster. Choosing policymakers is fraught with problems, even if they happen to be televisually appealing, trustworthy, genuine and honest. It's time to move toward choosing outcomes; there are plenty of alternative careers to politics for people with charisma and ambition.

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