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What We're Reading: Rescuing Policy

How can government solve the complex issues facing society?

It may be, relatively speaking, straightforward for a government to cut taxes or make the trains run on time but alleviating poverty, reducing crime or eliminating pollution are problems too difficult for government alone to solve. In a previous video post, I discussed how politicians react to public opinion by creating public policy. I argued for a complex relationship between public opinion and policy. I'm about to contradict myself..... this is not always the case. In some instances political parties attempt to react directly to public opinion and create straightforward policy solutions.

In Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement, author  Don Lenihan argues that the ‘consumer model of politics’ is the wrong approach. In the consumer model, political parties try to address the very specific concerns of voters in hopes of winning their support. Instead of addressing the big, long term, complex issues facing society, parties try and focus on simple solutions while avoiding taking positions on anything that might lose them support.

Lenihan believes this model cannot be used to deal with the difficult problems society faces because simple solutions are generally not effective at addressing complex issues. To borrow from another book, Getting to Maybe outlines a simple problem like baking a cake beside a complex problem like raising a child. A one page recipe probably will not give you the information you need to raise a child who turns into a healthy, well adjusted adult.

Simple, Complicated and Complex Problems
Simple Complicated Complex
Baking a Cake Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child
The recipe is essential Rigid protocols or formulas are needed Rigid protocols have a limited application or are counter-productive
Recipes are tested to assure easy replication Sending one rocket increases the likelihood that the next will also be a success Raising one child provides experience but is not guarantee of success with the next
No particular expertise is required, but experience increases success rate High levels of expertise and training in a variety of fields are necessary for success Expertise helps but only when balanced with responsiveness to the particular child
A good recipe produces nearly the same cake every time Key elements of each rocket MUST be identical to succeed Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual
The best recipes give good results every time There is a high degree of certainty of outcome Uncertainty of outcome remains
A good recipe notes the quantity and nature of the "parts" needed and specifies the order in which to combine them, but there is room for experimentation Success depends on a blueprint that directs both the development of separate parts and specifies the exact relationship in which to assemble them Can't separate the parts from the whole; essence exists in the relationship between different people, different experiences, different moments in time

From "Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed" (2006) Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Quinn Patton

Similarly, Lenihan argues societal problems cannot be solved by a government led effort which is focused on simple solutions designed first and foremost to help win re-election. Instead Lenihan believes true collaboration between government, citizen and stakeholder groups is needed to create effective policy solutions.

Lenihan does not just criticize the current state of policy making, he also offers a solution. He recommends a model of public engagement where governments have a real dialogue with citizens. Many books and experts suggest that government needs to do a better job of listening to people but Lenihan takes this approach a step further. Instead of just asking for citizen concerns or people’s suggested solutions (i.e. consultation) he proposes that government, the public and stakeholders collectively develop an action plan with each group committing to playing a role in solving the problems identified. This is the key distinction. Most public engagement strategies stop at gathering input from citizens and then it is government’s responsibility to react to this input. Lenihan’s approach gathers input from citizens then once this input is received citizens are asked to work with government on implementing solutions.

Seeing a book defend this approach is reassuring for staff of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council (WRCPC).

WRCPC, since its inception, has consistently followed this philosophy. Our projects regularly engage the public in the work of creating and implementing solutions to complex problems. Recently, for example, we created a plan to help children & youth involved the criminal justice system and the child welfare system (commonly known as crossover children because they ‘crossover’ from the child welfare system into the criminal justice system). The plan, like any good government strategy, was developed in consultation with the community but we echoed Lenihan’s approach and developed tasks for WRCPC and tasks for community agencies like Family and Children’s Services of the Waterloo Region. It is nice to know when asking our partners to implement solutions with us we are on strong intellectual grounding.

Rescuing Policy does an excellent job of conveying the importance of shifting away from the consumer model of politics and explaining at a high level an alternative approach to consulting with the public. However, the book fails at providing the tools for practitioners to easily replicate the public engagement methods discussed in the book. Towards the end of Rescuing Policy, Lenihan touches on his plans to release a manual or textbook on designing public engagement processes. When this textbook is complete it will hopefully aid policy makers to put into practice the ideas contained in Rescuing Policy.

Rescuing Policy is available free from The Public Policy Forum. Electronic copies are available online here or you can order a copy here. If you develop public engagement processes, or want the help change the landscape for how public engagement is carried out in our communities,  I encourage you to pick up a copy of this insightful book.


Author: Anthony Piscitelli is Supervisor, Planning & Research with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council. He collaborates on all research efforts published by WRCPC in addition to running the office sports pools.
 

Comments

Hi Anthony: I'm trying to get a forum together to improve services for families with missing loved ones (adults). Our son (now 29) went missing on Nov. 3, 2011. We learned the hard way, there are no local support services if the missing person is an adult. So, I was able to source a local private counselling agency to start up a monthly support group, it concludes in June. By then, I'm hoping to get a forum setup with community representation from police, media, counselling services, related agencies (medical, legal, funding, Crime Stoppers, etc.) to brainstorm how we can help raise awareness and get ongoing support programs going in our community.

The UK and Australia are ahead of Canada; they have seperate organizations dealing specifically with missing persons and support services for the families. So, I'll take a read and see if this framework can help. This article came at the right time.

Hi Maureen,
I'm very sorry to hear this about your son. I can't imagine this tragedy.

Did you know about the annual event Music 4 the Missing? http://www.music4themissing.ca/. I've seen it around Kitchener for the last few years.
I also recently came across 'Unsolved Canada' http://www.unsolvedcanada.ca/index.php

I wish you the best in your work of public engagement toward some policy impact.
Best,
Juanita

I've been thinking about a method to help get a community forum started for families with missing loved ones, the Rescuing Policy is an interesting approach, timely. For anyone who knows me, I don't like to reinvent, my approach is to engage others (Police, Media, Support Agencies, Search and Rescue) and leverage what's already out there.

Will definitely read this to help plan next steps, thanks.

Thanks for your comment Maureen, glad to see you are engaged in the community. What project are you planning?

When you are looking at the book it may be worthwhile to start with Chapter 6 on page 119. This chapter outlines the principles of the approach and would provide a quick way to see if the method will be appropriate for your purposes.

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