12 November 2011

Consult on ends, rather than means

From a letter to the editor of the London Times:
Sir, Your endorsement of the Greek referendum so that the Greek people can determine their own future surprised me. Personally, I will endorse referendums on economic policy once we also put the question of what medicine doctors should use to cure certain illnesses to a public vote. Jacob Williamson, 'The Times', 4 November
Mr Williamson has a point: economic policymaking is now so complex and specialised that consultation with the public might well be a bad idea. On the other hand, harsh austerity measures need quite a lot of buy-in if they are to be successful; the sort of buy-in that might only be possible with public approval.

The answer could be to consult the public on meaningful outcomes, rather than on policies that may or may not achieve them. We understand the ends more readily than the means. When we buy a plane ticket, we are concerned more with the destination than the identity of the pilot or the detailed operation of the plane. Social Policy Bonds are a means by which the public can articulate the goals and priorities of policy. Under a bond regime, social and environmental outcomes would not only be identified and targeted, but also continually costed via the market for the bonds. Referendums about policy goals then would be a meaningful exercise, one that encourage broad engagement with the policymaking process, and the buy-in that's necessary for difficult decisions.

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