Challenge of rationalising public policymaking | Daily News

Challenge of rationalising public policymaking

When the State fails, everything else tends to fail as well. This is what we observe around us today. Parliament does not enact urgent legislation in a timely fashion. The Government does not come up with comprehensive public policies in critically important areas. State institutions do not function effectively due to a whole host of reasons. The result is public disillusionment leading to many adverse consequences.

In a democracy, people vote out governments that become unpopular but the one that comes in may not be any better. The result is the continuation of the same conditions of poor governance, making the life of many as miserable as ever.

Managing even a household is not easy. It involves planning, sound collective decision making with respect to a whole range of issues such as managing available resources, mobilizing additional resources when necessary, making sound expenditure and investment plans, etc. but, managing a country is incredibly more complex. That is why we need smart leaders. Since they are hard to come by in many countries, in particular in this country, due to either dictatorial or populist tendencies within parties or both. That is why, in mature democracies, there are long established public institutions to facilitate well informed public policy making. These institutions usually mobilize a whole range of specialists and professionals to do the complex analyses and come up sound policy options. If most of them come from narrow fields of interest and expertise such as business and law, much of the larger picture is lost and incredibly unsound decisions are taken leading to disastrous results. Let us look at government decisions regarding public investments on infrastructure projects.

Political leaders and knowledge producers

When a government decides on an infrastructure project like a power plant or an expressway, such decisions cannot be made entirely on an economic cost-benefit analysis. For there are many other equally important considerations that need to guide policy decisions. These include environmental and social considerations. In more recent years, overall social sustainability has become a critical consideration in decision making.

How can policymakers take sound policy decisions if they are not conversant with research evidence relating to the issues that they are supposed to address? This is where the think tanks come in.

Numerous research institutions in diverse fields and leading universities often generate much-needed research evidence that enables the experts to provide timely guidance to policymakers. Yet, the asymmetrical relationship between political leaders on one hand and knowledge producers on the other in developing countries like Sri Lanka allows politicians to take arbitrary decisions without worrying about their adverse consequences.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. On the other hand, if one looks at the research evidence related to many issues, it is not difficult to determine the kind of policy measures that need to be taken but politicians who are entrusted with the responsibility of managing such issues continue to do what they like, depending on their whims and fancies. Let me illustrate the above points with a few examples. If I take the transport issue first, it is clear that the country's transport situation is getting worse by the day, with its horrendous consequences such as increasing air pollution, loss of millions of work hours daily on our congested roads, thousands of fatal and not so fatal accidents, millions of gallons of fuel unnecessarily burnt on a daily basis, etc.

On the other hand, public investment decisions taken by politicians are not guided by the above evidence which is obvious to even a semi-literate citizen. While the obvious choice is to develop public transport at the expense of private transport, what is being done is the exact opposite.

Budgetary allocations for education

Now, let us look at the situation with respect to education. There are many pressing issues in the education sector such as rural-urban disparities, de facto segregation of schools on the ethnic, religious and linguistic basis, increasing emphasis on examination results at the expense of holistic education, poor language and analytical skills of school leavers, etc.

While the budgetary allocations for education have long been grossly inadequate to address the persisting structural and other issues, politicians in charge allocate scarce resources for trivial measures like distributing tablets among schoolchildren, as if children are not struggling with more basic problems like the lack of laboratory facilities, libraries, specialist teachers, activity rooms, etc. Allocation of resources in the education sector has to be based on a thorough analysis of the felt needs of the student population as well as the relevant institutions based on empirical data but this is not what happens in a country where politicians do not feel that they are accountable to people who elect them to power.

And now a few words about national priorities. If one looks at the government budgetary allocations for 2018, it is quite clear that national security continues to be the biggest priority, and human security is not considered as important. Europeans after the Second World War realized the need to strengthen human security by giving high priority to social development. An increasing share of the growing state revenue under social democratic regimes was allocated for education, training, scientific research, health, public transport, social security, unemployment insurance, etc. Most of these countries became more equitable, peaceful, contented and prosperous.

Consumption of illicit liquor

And, finally, the most recent decision by the government to reduce the excise tax on beer, in order to curb the consumption of illicit liquor. This is essentially an arbitrary decision that cannot be supported by any research evidence, from here or abroad. There is an enormous research literature on the subject, both globally and nationally that shows clearly that what matters is not what people drink but the amount of pure alcohol consumed by individuals and populations. So, any increase in the volume of any beverage can increase the amount of pure alcohol consumed and this is what causes alcohol-related problems in society, for both consumers and others. If the problem is widespread consumption of illicit alcohol, the solution is something else, namely effective law enforcement and community level interventions to reach out to alcohol abusers. Budgetary allocations should be increased for institutions that have been mandated by law to deal with the issues concerned. But such responses cannot be expected from politicians who have no time or interest to take part in research and policy discussions on the relevant subjects and learn about research evidence related to subjects that have been allocated to them. So, most of the decisions taken by most of the Ministers have long been based anything but evidence produced by researchers in diverse fields. No wonder that there was hardly any mention of research and development during the course of the budget debate or any significant allocation of public funds for research related institutions.

The lack of any serious interest in research and development in the country is a clear sign of the failure of the state at a time when many countries even in this region pay increasing attention to the need for promoting useful research. For instance, today, China and South Korea are leaders in this regard not just in Asia but in the whole world. You only have to look at the data widely available. The results are clear. They are not second to leading industrial countries like Japan, USA and Germany. But who cares about such evidence in a country like Sri Lanka where populist politics largely guided by vested interests and individual prejudices determines what happens to state revenue generated largely by taxing low-income people through indirect taxes. 

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