18 October 2017

Avoiding the disaster of disengagement

Peter Arnold writes:
Mimicking ‘the Trump phenomenon’, Emmanuel Macron did not win the French presidential election. The politicians who had, for decades, governed the country, lost. Mark Rutte’s governing party lost seats in the Dutch parliament to Geert Wilders and other small parties. Matteo Renzi’s governing party lost the 2016 plebiscite to change the Italian constitution. Theresa May’s governing party lost ten seats to minor parties. Malcolm Turnbull’s governing party lost seats to minor parties. As further proof my thesis, Angela Merkel will lose seats next month.

What is it about governing politicians in these democracies that has caused their electorates to vote against them? The French have a word for it, a word which emerged after Mr Macron, although lacking a political party, saw his opponents fall by the wayside – d├ęgagement. ‘Disengagement’. Winning by default, Peter Arnold, 'Quadrant online', 13 October
We shouldn't be surprised at this all-pervasive disengagement. Policymaking is now so removed from the concerns of ordinary people and the process itself is so arcane, that only specialists, usually employed by large public- or private-sector bodies, can afford to follow it. Despite the odd referendum, the gap between the politico-bureaucratic complex and the people they are supposed to represent grows ever larger. In such a dysfunctional environment, disengagement would seem to be the least timewasting strategy for ordinary citizens to adopt.

Social Policy Bonds might be a way of closing the gap. Their aim is to inject market incentives into the solution of our social and environmental problems. But, as well as, and perhaps even more important than, the channeling of the market's incentives and efficiencies into such problems, they take as their starting point outcomes. Social and environmental outcomes, that is, that we want to achieve. Under a bond regime, the focus of political debate would be on these outcomes: the priority we attach to them and how much we are willing to spend on them. Current policymaking focuses on institutional funding and structures and esoteric aspects of law and regulation, all of which can be, and are, manipulated by those lobbyists and their paymasters. The rest of us have to live with the consequences. The underlying assumption is that, if we have a social problem, it's government who should decide how we'll try to solve it, and who shall be charged with doing so. With anything at all complex it's unsurprising that such a way of doing policy is at best inefficient, and at worst an opportunity for vested interests to delay or oppose anything that threatens their business model.

Social Policy Bonds, in centering policy debate on outcomes, would encourage less rarefied policymaking than the current system. People understand broad meaningful outcomes more than we do the obscurantist tactics of today's legislators. So we should be able - if we want - to participate for more fully than we can today. It's likely too that some of the heat would be taken out of politics: there's probably far more consensus over outcomes that we want to see - healthier citizens, less air pollution, universal literacy, say - than over the supposed means of reaching them.

Under a bond regime, probably nobody would see exactly the policy priorities they want to see. But, compared with today's policymaking, (1) it's probably more likely that citizens' interests will be considered and taken seriously, and (2) public participation in the process can be seen both as a desirable goal in itself (see here, for instance), and as a necessary condition for buy-in, without which many of our most urgent challenges are unlikely to be met. Disengagement presages disaster. Social Policy Bonds could be the way to avoid it.

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