A Policy A Day: An Introduction

In the lead-up to the election, we’re publishing A Policy A Day – a look at some of the issues that face New Zealand and how we think they could be addressed (or even solved). This time it really is going to be every day, including the weekends, so we’ve lined up over 30 young writers from a diverse range of backgrounds to write about topics that they’re really passionate about. We’ll be looking at a combination of existing policies from the political parties, as well as policies that we think deserve a lot more attention and really should be talked about more.

But before we can get too deeply into the policies, we need to answer a question:

What does policy actually mean?
There’s a lot of political science theory out there on this topic, but I’ll try to keep this simple with my interpretation. Given that a particular issue has been identified, policy is a statement of intent about the actions that a government takes to address that issue. Policies should be action or solution-oriented, but at the end of the day, it’s just a statement of intent or a plan. The actual implementation is still left up to the government and, as happens all too often, can still be stuffed up in any one of a million ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad policy (although sometimes that contributes), so it’s important to separate the policy ideas from the implementation. We can divide this flow into three parts:

Issue -> Policy -> Implementation

Of course, the reason we have politics is that at every stage of this process we can have differences in opinion. We may disagree on what is actually an issue or what the most important issues are, we often don’t know what the “best” policy solution is (or what best even means), and different implementations of the same policy can lead to very different end outcomes for the public. Policy cannot be entirely divorced from politics, so we always have to keep political realities in the back of our minds when we discuss policy.

Governments actually have a lot of different options for how to address particular issues – even if we have found a “good” policy option, chances are there are other good policy options also available. There are many issues to solve and many good solutions, but we are also fundamentally limited by budgetary and logistical constraints. Decision makers in government and cabinet have to make choices about where to allocate funding (and humans) based on their priorities, so we can’t solve all issues or implement all policy solutions.

One way of thinking about the different policy options is by taking a loose interpretation of Lawrence Lessig’s pathetic dot theory, so called because the user (in this case, the general public) is often treated as a passive object that regulation (or incentivisation) happens to. The theory suggests that everyone’s behaviour is constrained by four types of regulation: legal, social norms, market, and architectural. For example, we might identify that smoking is harmful to people’s health with wider social and economic harms, so the government wants to do something about it. We could say that the government has designated that smoking is an issue that needs to be addressed (and we should consider that even at this fundamental level people may disagree with this assertion). To address this issue, the government might have several options:

Legal: The government could pass laws that regulate smoking based on age (e.g. you must be at least 18), where you can smoke (e.g. you cannot smoke public indoor spaces), or with other restrictions.

Social norms: Through public education campaigns, the government can influence behaviour by discouraging people from smoking from a young age, thus moulding the social norms around smoking. You’ve probably seen plenty of anti-smoking advertisements as billboards or on TV, funded by government agencies.

Market: The government can levy tobacco taxes that make cigarettes less affordable, interfering with the supply and demand equation to modify the public’s ability to choose to smoke or not smoke.

Architectural: The government can change the process or product itself, such as by limiting the amount of nicotine allowed in cigarettes or encouraging the adoption of e-cigarettes that are less harmful.

As evidenced by this example, the government doesn’t have to just choose one option – while sometimes the options are mutually exclusive (pick one or the other), often they are complementary and reflect a desire to move in a particular direction (in this case, towards reducing smoking). For each policy option, we have to consider the pros and cons, who it helps and who it harms, and how much it costs and what we won’t be able to do instead if we do this.

Let’s look a different example where we want to move in the opposite direction, where the government thinks that renewable energy is a good thing and wants to encourage the adoption of solar panels. We could say that the government has identified the lack of solar panel adoption as an issue, and so we have many different policy solution options:

Legal: The government could pass laws that require the use of solar panels on all new buildings above a certain size, with a certain percentage of each new building’s energy needs met by solar.

Social norms: The government could launch an advertising campaign to tell people fighting climate change and being environmentally friendly is important and so they should put solar panels on their houses.

Market: The government could provide subsidies for solar panels, encouraging adoption by paying for a certain percentage of the solar panels to make them cheaper for the end user.

Architectural: The government could fund research and development towards making solar panels more useful in harsh environments such as in colder parts of the South Island, or introduce standards that require solar panels to meet minimum efficiency requirements so that fewer sub-standard low-quality solar panels are installed.

As suggested before, this isn’t the only way to think about public policy. Something missing from this model is the element of consultation with the public and participation of the public through submissions, petitions, protests, and more. That element lifts the “dot” (i.e. us) from being passive to being more active participants in policy development. Working with experts outside government, other government agencies, and with the public generally is an important element of policy development in the public sector. Some theorists describe policymaking as a “dynamic, complex, and interactive” process, and we should also consider policy responses at different levels of government (local, national, and international). Considering the implementation from an early stage is also really important – policies that cannot be effectively implemented should be thrown out pretty quickly. Verification and program evaluation are also needed so that we can keep tabs on implementation and check that things have actually been done properly once policies have been adopted.

Hopefully, this serves as a brief introduction to how we might think about the different options that a government has, how we might consider if they’re good or bad, and why people might agree or disagree about different issues, policy solutions, and implementations. It’s intended to help you think about why politics is difficult, and why different people with good intentions can come up with wildly different positions. Throughout the next month, we’re going to hear (read) from a lot of different perspectives on a range of issues that need government responses – knowing what our policy options are (and what they entail) is key to picking the best option(s) for implementation so that we can achieve good outcomes for New Zealand.

We’re organising this series of posts because we want to inform as many people as possible about the range and scope of the issues that the government has to deal with, and to encourage readers to think about their own policy ideas for addressing those issues. Maybe it’ll help you decide who you want to vote for, but voting is actually only one way to influence government. We hope to inspire readers to actively participate in democratic processes more long-term, to get the issues that matter to them in front of their elected representatives, and to not just find problems but to propose workable, tenable policy solutions.

The full set of A Policy A Day articles is available here!

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