18 December 2012

Ticking boxes is not the same as achieving goals

Josie Appleton, of the UK's Manifesto Club, reads 'a lot of child protection policy documents':
They are often hundreds of pages long, yet I have never seen a proposal that would prevent a paedophile from getting access to children. Instead, there are all sorts of rules – rules about how you transport children to football matches, rules about how you take photographs, rules about late pick-up policies for when the parents don’t turn up on time to take their kids home from some activity or other. So there is this morass of bureaucracy, yet there’s not one identifiable useful functional element within it. What you have then really are rules for the sake of rules. Why everyday life is tied up in red tape, 'Spiked', 18 December
It's the triumph of process over outcomes. Ticking boxes has become more important than achieving society's goals. Avoidance of litigation becomes the guiding principle. Compliance with procedure is what matters. We see this in so many policy areas: from climate change to health care, where it takes the form of defensive medicine.

Society is increasingly dominated by government and big business. As Ms Appleton suggests, bureaucrats have as their goal the proliferation of rules and ensuring compliance with them. Politicians have the de facto goal of maximising Gross Domestic Product. And the private sector goal of maximising profits as measured by accountants, and ignoring any non-market negative impacts of their activities. In a crowded, complex world, with so many time lags and linkages, these goals are increasingly irrelevant to those of ordinary people. Worse, they often conflict with them.

Social Policy Bonds could realign the interests of government and big business with those of society. Instead of processes that are supposedly aimed at achieving outcomes, government would target the outcomes themselves. At the global level, it could target the negative impacts of climate change. At the national level, it could target meaningful health outcomes. A bond regime would encourage government to do what it does well: articulate society's goals and raise the revenue to achieve them. Where the current system goes awry is in government's trying to identify the processes that will lead to certain outcomes. In a complex, changing world, it cannot often do this effectively. So it's prone to listen to lobbyists for groups whose interests rarely coincide with those of society. The gap between government and people grows. Social Policy Bonds could close that gap.

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