18 April 2011

It's broken

Fareed Zakaria writes about the US political system:
We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever. Are America's Best Days Behind Us?, 'Time', 3 March
(To 'pandering to the interests of the present...' I would add '...and the wealthy...') How has this come about? I think it's largely because policymaking is opaque to most ordinary people. It's focused on arcane discussion about laws, organisational structures and institutional funding. All these things are necessary of course, but they should be the by-product of policy geared to the interests of society: what I call outcomes. Opacity and complexity are being exploited - perhaps cynically, perhaps not - in the interests of government and big business, at the expense of small enterprises, the public and the physical environment and, as is becoming ever more apparent, our future.

How to re-orient policymaking so that it focuses on things that are important to people? The essential step is to make it comprehensible, which will encourage greater public participation, and hence buy-in. One way of doing that would be to focus discussion entirely in terms of outcomes. Transparency would generate realistic expectations about what government can and cannot achieve. The notion of trade-offs, absolutely central to politics, would be clear to everyone, not hidden from public discussion.

Social Policy Bonds are one way in which our politics could be re-jigged so as to focus on meaningful outcomes for society as a whole. A bond regime would express its goals in terms of broad social and environmental outcomes, while the market would not only provide best estimates, on a dynamic basis, of their costs, but also reward only the most efficient ways of achieving them. It would represent a radical departure from the existing set-up but, as I explain in my book, a gradual transition could occur, with spending to existing bodies gradually reducing in line with increases in funding allocated to redeeming the bonds.

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