Over the years, Policy Options has published several splendid viewpoints on what government policy should or should not be. It has published far fewer on why policy so often does not work out as expected and what might be done to improve the odds. That is the con- cern of this article. The goal of policy is not only a good deci- sion; the goal is the best choice among the policy options available and then successful execution and adjustment over time. The article draws heavily on the time honoured pro- gression: problem definition ”” options development ”” analysis ”” goals and objectives ”” decision ”” execution ”” post-execution evaluation and adjustment.

Policy does not exist in a vacuum; it always begins with a problem, or at least a perceived problem, to be fixed. Trace policy failure back far enough and do not be surprised to find a flawed definition of the problem. If the problem to be fixed is not properly defined, it will only be by luck that there will be a good policy outcome. Only luck fixes a prob- lem that is not understood. Any solution will do if you do not know the problem, the same way as any road will get you there if you do not know where there is.

Getting precision and clarity around problem definition is crucial to policy success. A fuzzy understanding of the prob- lem inevitably cascades into an inadequate and incomplete options list, soft and confused analysis, wrong decisions, weak execution, limited ability to respond and recover in the post-execution evaluation and adjustment phase and gener- ally unpleasant surprises. Poor problem definition is fertile ground for the law of unintended negative consequences ”” things you never expected to happen, happen, and almost all of them are bad. There is no law of unintended positive con- sequences. When policy goes wrong, you rarely luck out.

MBA instructors implore their students to ”œget it right up front.” Up front is when the problem is being defined. Errors up front magnify exponentially down the road. The scien- tist’s ”œfaulty premise ”” faulty experiment” adage applies equally to policymaking; just substitute problem definition for premise and policy outcome for experiment.

The national gun registry policy illustrates the conse- quences of fuzzy problem definition. What problem was gun registry trying to fix: too much firearm violence; too much firearm crime; too many firearm accidents; too much firearm theft; too many unexpected encounters between law enforcement and armed people; too much careless firearm storage; too many poorly trained firearm users; too many high powered firearms; too many hand-guns slipping through the current system; all good people have a comprehensive firearm registry and the problem is us good people do not have one; all of the above; some of the above.

Look at what happened next! Disastrously wrong cost estimates in the analysis phase (a $119 million, five year cost estimate to be covered almost entirely by registration fees ultimately became a billion dollars); a flawed decision to proceed; even more flawed execution (for operational staff the unenviable assignment was essentially doing the undoable and achieving the unachievable); political and public rela- tions driven post-execution evaluation and adjustment. The policy outcome: frustration, anger, confusion, uncertain- ty, division, squandered time and money, even most un-Canadianlike civil disobedience and all with no obvious benefit and the still unanswered ques- tion of what problem exactly were we trying to fix.

Gun registry is a textbook case of the law of unintended negative conse- quences getting a hold of fuzzy prob- lem definition. It is a rare problem that a billion dollars does not put a good dent in, but that would appear to be where we are with the gun registry. Had the problem been clearly and pre- cisely defined surely we would have more to show for the billion. This is not to pick on this federal govern- ment. Scratch any government in power for long enough and you find illustrations of poor problem defini- tion and its consequences. Poor prob- lem definition always leaves everyone in a policy place they would rather not be. Indeed! Get it right up front!

Defining a problem properly is no easy task. Often more art than sci- ence, there is no step by step manual that guarantees success. Advice that may be helpful includes the following: think the problem through carefully and systematically ”” it seems trite but plain old lack of thought explains a lot that goes wrong in policy; identify who specifically is affected by the problem and, if at all possible, quantify the effects; be patient ”” getting problems properly defined cannot be rushed; get people involved with a history of suc- cessfully getting clarifying structure around problems ”” some have a knack for getting things right up front and others do not; get perspective on the problem by classifying and ranking its seriousness ”” all problems are not equally serious; abandon preconcep- tions and give people wide intellectual latitude to explore; give the process of defining the problem the respect it deserves ”” defining the problem is an important step in the policy process, not an obvious-to-everyone step to be leapt over as quickly as possible; do not exaggerate the problem in an effort to boost the benefits of solving it ”” those chickens always come home to roost; study the experience of others defining similar problems.

The problem definition stage is not the only place that policy goes wrong. Things can also get seriously off the rails in the options development and analysis phases. What decision-makers need is a full menu of the alternative ways of solving a problem that for each includes realistic estimates of benefits and costs, both quantitative and non- quantitative. Common mistakes include rejecting right out of the gate options that run counter to conven- tional wisdom, exaggerating benefits while low-balling costs, not properly quantifying benefits and costs, not tak- ing proper account of where the need- ed resources will come from and the benefits of their alternative uses, down- playing the time value of money, not considering how things will be financed which is different from what they will cost, not properly developing and assessing the risk profile of each option, not including an exit strategy for each option should things not work out as planned and finally, not coming to grips with the realities of actually executing an option.

That most basic of policy ques- tions, can this actually be properly done, too often does not get asked and honestly answered until too late. What is great in theory is sometimes an implementation disaster. There is no better reason not to do something than it cannot be done. Again, gun registry illustrates. That it could not be executed as planned, within budget should have been apparent at the start. Getting those who will actually have to execute a policy involved in the options development and analysis phases can be enormously helpful. Operational expertise can be cold water to a good proposal, but more often than not, it is a needed breath of fresh air. Operational expertise grounds policy making in the real world where it has to work.

Most of the problems in the deci- sion stage are obvious: turning decision-making into a Hobson’s choice sham; poorly articulated goals and objectives; letting short-term political considerations override common sense, sound analysis and the long term; haste; expediency; vacillation. Two that are not so obvious are selecting a policy course without knowing clearly how and under what circumstances that course could be reversed or discontin- ued and not continuing to leave a next best option open. Having the next best option still open can be a godsend should the chosen path become a nightmare. Keeping an option open may not be as difficult as it first appears, but it does take planning.

Execution is where the rubber meets the road. Superb execution can- not save bad policy, but it can sure make mediocre policy look a lot better than it really is. Execution is management: get- ting things done properly through peo- ple on time within a budget. Management is singles not homeruns, relentless attention to details, constant measurement and bench-marking, doing things properly day after boring day after boring day. The only time you think about management is when it is bad; then it is all you think about.

Good execution may not be exciting but it is always a nec- essary condition for policy success. The much maligned GST is an example of strong policy execution. For something so complex and so hated, the actual implementation went off remarkably well. The GST also illustrates strong options development and analysis. That subsequent governments have chosen not to get rid of the GST almost surely means it was the best course available. When choos- ing among bad, worse and worst, it takes skill to find the bad and execute it well. When policy fails, execution fail- ure is usually not far off.

The final step in policy-making is post-execution evaluation and adjust- ment. Accountability is at the heart of successful policy and the post-execution evaluation and adjustment phase is at the heart of accountability. The capacity to head off policy failure at this stage should not be underestimat- ed. Post-execution evaluation and adjustment can be particularly effective when policy fails because conditions have abruptly and materially changed. Regrettably, too often this stage is more focused on political advantage, covering one’s own backside and getting blame placed at the right door than wise assessment, constructive adjustment and avoiding similar pitfalls in the future. The goldfish bowl political process does not lend itself to easily fix- ing mistakes. That is why doing things properly the first time is so important.

Above all, policy-makers should be humble. They should not let pride keep them from walking away from obvious policy failure. In policy- making, as in many things in business and life, your first loss is usually your smallest. There is no point to beating a dead policy horse but too often policy- makers try, only to escalate and accel- erate the losses. It takes real courage to walk away from failed policy.

The concluding message in all this: Define the problem properly. Develop options without any precon- ceptions. Evaluate each option fully and objectively. Understand the risks. Know what you are trying to achieve. Make a timely decision. Execute well. Honestly assess after the fact. Do not be afraid to change policy or aban- don it altogether. Sounds much easier than it really is. When poli- cy goes badly, it is a pretty good bet one or more of these steps did not get the attention it needed. There will always be policy fail- ures, but there are ways to increase the chances for success. The policymaking process itself deserves a lot more attention than it usually gets. It is far more than just a choice among options. In many ways, once the choice is made, the real work begins.

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