Why Educating Policymakers Is Not Enough

There’s an interesting new article up at Texas National Security Review on policymaking, and specifically on policy “competence.” Titled “To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving,” the article laments the decline of policy education at the highest levels of elite and civil service-based training in governance, and its author offers a comprehensive set of reforms in university training of policymakers. 

It’s understandable that this has become a concern: the so-called populism that we are told is driving the current political moment brings with it (not in every instance but in more than a few) a thumbing-the-nose at policy expertise. The author of the TNSR article, Philip Zelikow, says there’s been a decline in policymaking skills going back much further than the past three years; I’ll leave it to others to weigh that data. 

Whatever the case, the author is optimistic that “[t]he skills needed to tackle public problem-solving are specific and cultural — and they are teachable.” Zelikow uses the metaphors of “hardware” and “software” to describe the tools required for nations and governments to implement good policies. Hardware is the structure of government (and, I would imagine, the material things needed to carry out policies). Software is the culture of education and decisionmaking that goes into training, acclimating, and facilitating policies and policymakers. 

Good software, Zelikow says, can compensate for bad hardware. “For instance,” he writes, “amid all the public controversies about law in America, the United States still does reasonably well upholding the rule of law and the administration of justice. Why? One reason is because the American legal profession has established very strong norms about what constitutes appropriate legal reasoning and quality legal research and writing. This is software.” It’s true that in spite of crisis after crisis at national and local levels, we still haven’t seen the total breakdown of law and order in society. But, as I will suggest below, the reason policy regimes succeed isn’t just the respect that legal practitioners have for the standards of their profession: it’s also that constituents still trust most of the fundamentals of the rule of law. If they didn’t, all the legal training in the world wouldn’t be enough to compel the non-legally trained people to obey the law. 

But the bottom line in Zelikow’s article remains lack of training, or improper training, as the cause of current policy incompetence. He has a good point, particularly historically, that such training matters. It was training, he writes, not only in the philosophy of civic virtue but in the incorporation of the right amount of technical knowledge into policymaking, that helped the Allies win the Second World War: “The Allied successes included extremely high-quality policy work on grand strategy, logistics, and problem-solving of every kind. The German and Japanese high commands were comparably deficient in all these respects.” 

So I also agree with Zelikow that the evolution of this broad-based approach into mere “economics, statistics, and quantitative analysis” in the latter half of the 20th century was an unfortunate descent. But I would offer up that the comprehensive curricular reform suggested in that article will itself simply devolve into hyperspecialization eventually without the check of citizen deliberation. 

Constituents and stakeholders are also hardware, and building a culture of interaction and participatory democracy is software. One important piece of the deliberative model is its distinction between constituents and consumers. As Tony Greenham writes, “Consumption implies a passive acceptance of what is on offer. Although we have a choice, it is within a narrow envelope of options within a fixed system. In contrast, citizenship brings a sense of ownership and agency over the system itself.” The bottom line is that deliberation creates a better policy because those who are affected by the policies get to have a say in their creation and implementation. 

Deliberation in the form of proactive constituent engagement can also check back on groupthink. A great case study about the dangers of groupthink is the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. And that particular manifestation of groupthink, inspired as it was by the imperative of the “political victory” of NASA looking good and the Reagan administration being able to celebrate a technological victory, suggests that an exclusive focus on better policy education on the part of leaders is not enough. 

Engineers from Thiokol had teleconferenced with NASA management about 12 hours before the launch of the Challenger. The engineers expressed their concern that lower temperatures at the launch site had created icicles. The engineers had already been concerned about the integrity of the O-rings on the craft. NASA rejected those concerns and judged the risks appropriate. 

Of course, groupthink results in thousands of mini-disasters, and occasionally bigger ones that mirror the magnitude of a deadly spaceflight disaster, in the worlds of national, state, and local policymaking. Even teaching leaders to question themselves, or organizational structures to question their own conclusions, may not be enough. What is needed is the perspective of those “outside” the decisionmaking body who aren’t really “outside.” This means constituents, stakeholders. Creating two-way, multi-way, collaborative platforms for constituent communication hardwires deliberative disruption. Disruption is the nutrient of democracy. 

So while I think it’s great that we’re talking about better leadership training, more robust civil service education, and creating holistic education for those who draft and implement policies, we also have to keep talking about the points of engagement between them and those they serve. That’s why software companies build government CRM solutions to manage these constituent communications at scale.