30 January 2012

The triumph of process

It's a familiar story: in so many policy areas - health, education, the environment, for instance - adherence to process is more highly rewarded than socially desirable outcomes. So we have a blizzard of micro-targets combined with a disintegrating physical and social environment and a disengaged electorate. Policymaking itself is an arcane process, comprehensible only to those who are paid to participate in it or who are lobbyists for powerful interests.

And it's the same in the justice system, at least in the US, where "Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.— more than were in Stalin’s gulags." Adam Gopnik explains:
accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. The caging of America, Adam Gopnik, 'New Yorker', 30 January
Mr Gopnik's article goes on to point out that the large falls in US crime rates over the past three decades, especially in New York, have many explanations, few of which could be known in advance.

I think this well-written piece helps make the case for targeting outcomes, as I have advocated, whether or not by using Social Policy Bonds. Society is so complex that a single group of policymakers cannot know in advance with any certainty the underlying relationships between, say, prison sentences and crime rates. Or between spending on schools and literacy. Or between greenhouse gas emissions and the numbers of people killed or made homeless by adverse climatic events. Where cause and effect are clear - as say, between inoculation rates and disease - there is a strong case for government working to achieve a social target. Where it is not there is still a strong case for government setting the target and raising the revenue for its achievement. But, instead of trying to achieve it directly, it would, I think, do better to contract out the achievement to a motivated, diverse and adaptive private sector. Social Policy Bonds are one way in which this division of labour could be carried out efficiently.


Mike Linksvayer said...

Great article, thanks for posting. The full link is cut off, should be http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik?currentPage=all

Ronnie Horesh said...

Thanks Mike, I've corrected the link.