The case for flexible, balanced policymaking

December 22, 2022 09:29
Liz Truss is one of the shortest-serving Prime Ministers in U.K. history. Photo: Reuters

Sound governance – and policymaking – must be both flexible and balanced.

This seems obvious. Banal, even. Yet at times like these it is all the more important that we speak the truths of governance whilst we can, and hope that power can be reformed and nudged in directions that benefit the whole of society – as opposed to the select few.

To start off, let us differentiate between flexibility and balance. The former denotes two factors pertaining to the pace and room for customisation and modifications – whether policymakers are open to changing their decisions and stances pending signals, which may well compel punctuation or recalibration to their equilibria; and the extent to which implementers of policies are capable of adapting to the specific circumstances on the ground. To visualise this – consider a chef who is in the process of preparing the best lobster bisque there could be; it is vital that he tastes the brew as he prepares it, and adjusts the broth’s balance of ingredients till he reaches the bliss point. The precision by which he does so, is innately reflective of his dexterity.

The latter pertains to the actual substance of the policies. To what extent are they reflective and cognizant of the full range of considerations that are fundamentally relevant? Can they balance the pros and cons, and the sensitivities and needs of different stakeholders? Are these policies measured and realistic in their timelines, constraints, and downstream long-term implications? To visualise this – picture a leader in the desert who is trying to distribute a limited volume of water amongst fifty individuals. There is no way everyone could get enough for them to all survive. As such, the leader must weigh a range of parameters, which may include the expected lifespan, the likelihood for survival, the ability to do good having survived the ordeal, and – even, perhaps – past actions and the ‘desert’ of these individuals. All in all, it’s a messy situation, but balancing the bunch of metrics that count is of utmost importance.

Flexibility and balance are not one and the same. Nor are they necessarily opposed. One could be both flexible and balanced at once, flexible yet imbalanced, balanced yet inflexible, or, indeed, neither flexible nor balanced. Policymakers must satisfy both criteria.

On flexibility. If policymakers cannot adapt with the times that they are in – the technology and resources made available to them through improvements in accessibility and scalability, or the shifting magnitudes of costs and risks (e.g. the mortality rates of particular diseases, or the downsides of economically punitive measures) – then they would surely struggle with ensuring that their policies remain relevant. A policy could be most justified and warranted per a particular point in time, and yet become utterly obsolete a few months later – for instance, a trade embargo would make sense as a strategy to isolate a pariah state, but not upon its discovering alternative partners whose increased economic contact has in fact bolstered the most ignominious and reprehensible dimensions of said country’s behaviours.

It's easy to understand why policymakers may be reticent to change. Heavily entrenched ideology, dogged pursuit of particular goals, fears of career repercussions and sanctions from higher powers that be, or, indeed, informational barriers and obstacles that impede an accurate assessment of the situation. Yet these are barriers that must thus be overcome and tackled – they cannot serve as blank-cheque excuses that folks defer to, or resort to, whenever pressed for answers. After all, it is real interests, material interests that are at stake here.

Then there is the question of balance. Radical, abrupt pivots in policies can work, provided that they take into full consideration the potential downsides and whiplash. Yet, as former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ disastrous tax cut proposal has demonstrated, an ill-thought-out and radical ‘reform’ could well be a disaster in the making, especially given the utter and total disregard for feasibility constraints, market reactions, and the (arguably long-term, but in fact short-term) bottlenecks to funding and resource generation that the government would thereby confront. Truss’ cabinet failed not because it wasn’t bold enough, but because its radicalism, coupled with her intransigence, led to the pursuit of policies that were devastated by their innate imbalance. Imbalance in over-weighing the ostensible stimulus of private investment and consumption, and in under-weighing the resultant fiscal hole. It was this lethal combination of myopia and smug ineptitude that produced one of the shortest Premierships in history.

Abrupt sea changes in policies – even ones that are deemed to possess adverse consequences – do not deliver for the people; they do not do right by the people. Indeed, at best, they cause policy confusion and damage the credibility of those wielding the authority to govern. At worst, they fundamentally lead to policy paralysis, as well as huge devastation in their wake.

At times like these when crises reign, it is all the more important that those with the mandate to lead and rule, do so with prudence and attention to details – for that, above all else, is the compassion governance requires.

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Assistant Professor, HKU