Art & science of policymaking

The Economic Times, November 25, 2008

By Pradeep S Mehta and Siddhartha Mitra

POLICY making is not for the fainthearted. Any policy, whether it relates to trade, infrastructure or anything else, always draws criticism that far exceeds appreciation. Theorists have now begun to view this generalisation as a psychological law.

Images of Singur also substantiate this point. Obviously, there is a lot to recommend the project. Alas, the broad development gains do not make headlines as much as Mamata taking up the cause of a band of displaced peasants. But this is not an isolated case, as we will continue to see more such episodes.

Therefore, the budding policymaker also needs to realise that policies that make all concerned happy do not exist. Social scientists have tried to come up with criteria that can assist the policymaker in this regard. Jeremy Bentham, an early 19th century British philosopher and jurist who founded the utilitarian school of thought, can be acknowledged as the father of related literature. Bentham supported the adoption of any policy as long as gainers could compensate the losers. His seminal work was a precursor to modern day costbenefit analysis.

Bentham’s prescriptions soon encountered stiff criticism: it was not appropriate to say that policies were good if gainers could compensate the losers. In reality, no such compensation ever took place.

Criticism culminated in the work of the early 20th century American political philosopher, John Rawls, who, a la Gandhi, suggested that a policy leads to social improvement only if the poorest sections of the population are made better off. In fact any policy which did the opposite could be termed as bad for the society irrespective of how much gain it generated for others. Not unexpectedly, the Rawlsian prescription ran into serious opposition from the established utilitarians. Even Deng, the pioneer of capitalism in communist China was “never bothered about the colour of the cat as long as it caught mice.”

How does the policymaker overcome uncertainty and subjectivity? Below we list some good practices for policymaking. They are not based on scholarly analysis but are products of homespun wisdom.

The first requirement for policymaking is consistency. If a policymaker thinks that industrial activity is the key to economic development, s/he cannot take from the industrial sector with one hand what s/he gives with another. An obsession with balance in policy making is often unproductive.

Most infrastructure and industrial policies hurt some people very badly. The government’s track record of relief and rehabilitation (R & R) on the ground remains continuously poor, though grand on paper. So there are extreme reactions. Proposals over the art of compensating peasants for their land with monetary relief, equity share and employment guarantee might be worthy of active consideration.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to initiate the process of monitoring R & R efforts through a combination of research and monitoring that facilitates their implementation with minimal losses. A good policymaker would try to build up a partnership with CSOs, gently guiding them to act in the nation’s best interest. A tendency to command and control, which is a legacy of the British Raj, coupled with arrogance, might sabotage the simplest of development plans. In the same breath, one can say that the state’s responsibility should end with the announcement of a policy; use of force to manufacture success of policies can often cost the nation as well as the incumbent political party dear.

Last and most important, every policymaker must keep himself/ herself tuned to the grass roots. The conception of a policy must be the outcome of public debate, even if legislators or policy makers have the last word. The Narmada valley fiasco is a good example of a straightforward development plan gone wrong because these principles were not followed. In a democracy you cannot keep the cat hidden in the bag forever; invariably it will slip out and reveal its true colours.

The authors are Secretary-General and Director (Research), CUTS International and can be reached at and respectively.

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