09 December 2010

What drives policy?

What does drive policy? Ideology, soundbites, emotion, personality, and institutional inertia are all prime motivators. Another is the desire to be associated with glamour. As the UK Government looks at spending £30 billion of taxpayer funds, which it can ill afford, on high-speed rail, it's all too easy to see the appeal of the grandiose, at the expense of the public, the environment...well, everything really.
The macho culture of local and national politics means that councillors, county surveyors and politicians want to be associated with grand projects: building a bypass, or a bridge, or a tram or fast train line. Car Sick: solutions for our car-addicted culture, Lynn Sloman, 2006
Transport is typical policy-as-if-outcomes-are-irrelevant territory. You might think that poverty, housing, health and education are more obvious policy areas: in which government intervention can bring about meaningful improvements in wellbeing for society's most disadvantaged people. You might also think, with me, that if it's worth spending billions of pounds to upgrade rail links that will shave a few minutes off journey times, then the private sector should be bear all the risk. But no, politicians feel they must get in on the act.

A Social Policy Bond regime wouldn't put up with such wasteful nonsense. Transport is a means to various ends, not an end in itself. Government should target those ends, and let motivated investors in Social Policy Bonds work out the best ways of achieving them. Clarity, in particular about the distinction between means and ends, is missing from today's policymaking environment. The result is we get lumbered with expensive, futile projects, while those things that government should be doing - and that only government can do well - are too often neglected.

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