17 October 2011

Social Policy Bonds: absurd (at first sight)

Mark Schmitt, reviewing The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler, writes:
We often hope that citizens will be able to deliberate thoughtfully about policy choices, but that is impossible if the policies are shrouded in complexity and in blurred responsibility. ... It is time for a new era of reinventing government, in which the goal is to establish certain clear, unambiguous public functions, and put energy and resources behind them — to row, and not merely to steer. Row! Row!, Mark Schmitt, 'The New Republic', 4 October
Exactly. This has been my theme for two decades now. Even if you do not think Social Policy Bonds are worth trying, you must surely agree with Mr Schmitt and myself that we, the public, cannot engage with current policymaking because of its complexity, and that it is time for reinventing government in such a way as to "establish certain clear, unambiguous" outcomes. Ok, I have substituted 'outcomes' for Mr Schmitt's "functions" because to me it is outcomes rather than processes that are important, and I think Mr Schmitt would agree with me.

So what about Social Policy Bonds? At first sight, I will admit that they do seem radical. They are likely to mean that the private sector tries to perform broad functions currently undertaken by government: the achievement of health, law and order, or environmental goals, for example. There are dangers in that, some of which I address in my book, others of which might not be anticipated. So I actually don't advocate that Social Policy Bonds be deployed widely. Not immediately, anyway. I do advocate that they be discussed, tried, refined, tried again, and then, perhaps, issued to solve our most urgent national and global problems.

The current system is failing us. Social Policy Bonds would represent a discontinuity in the way we approach policy. They are untried and untested. They use right-wing methods to achieve goals usually articulated by the so-called left. Yes, at first sight, they do seem absurd. But in defence of the Social Policy Bond concept, I call Albert Einstein, who said: “If at first, an idea isn't absurd, then there is no hope for it”.

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