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FRONT PORCH: Making good public policy is hard work

WE often cook up public policy in The Bahamas in a similar manner to which an unsatisfying and innutritious meal is slapped together. There is little forethought, no clear recipe, with all kinds of slam bam ingredients hurriedly mixed together.

Then the cook hypes the meal with clichés and gobbledygook suggesting how good it is though it obviously looks and tastes bad, inducing heart burn and indigestion.

Most, though not all, of those who run for political office here at home are bereft of ideas and policy prescriptions for the challenges they will confront if elected. Most of them do not read books or current affairs magazines or listen to informative podcasts.

Their depth of understanding or knowledge of world events is derived mostly from the shallow set-pieces and shows of the US cable news entertainment industry, with predictable regurgitations of similar talking points on issues ranging from Xi Jinping and China to Donald Trump.

While some election manifestos have been carefully prepared over the years, others were adornments similar to t-shirts and campaign paraphernalia, with gauzy ideas on glossy pages never seriously pursued or realized.

During his time in office, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham regularly called cabinet ministers, pressing them as to why various manifesto commitments were not fulfilled.

What are among the indispensable prerequisites for good policy creation? Creative, intelligent and talented practitioners are key. Another key: structures for policy planning, implementation and oversight.

The late Lee Kwan Yew insisted that central to his success in transforming a small, insular Singapore, dangling from the tip of the Malay Peninsula, into a modern metropolis and gleaming city-state, was his access to smart people.

Intellect alone does not ensure good policy outcomes. Smart people often engage in group think. Intellectual pride can be blinding, often servicing narrow self-interests. But what assures poor outcomes is poor and limited talent.

DOOM AND GLOOM

A cabinet disabled with poor intellectual quality is destined to lead to policy doom and gloom. It is an open wound that the quality of cabinet ministers continues to decline. Where is the intellectual quality of individuals like Carlton Francis, AD Hanna, Dame Janet Bostwick, Sean McWeeney and others?

Last week’s column on Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley resulted in a number of responses. Bahamians, like people everywhere, are hungry for leaders who can lift them up and speak convincingly to shared aspirations for a better country.

A Bahamian who has seen Ms Mottley at various international events noted how she is able to speak fluidly, cogently and extemporaneously on an impressive range of briefs such as international finance and politics, sometimes spiced with references to Bob Marley, Caribbean writers and lyrics from calypso cum soca.

The best intellects are integrative, with all that an individual learns, helping one to imagine and craft innovative policy ideas. When political, business, religious, media and other leaders do not expose themselves to the current of world and cultural affairs, they remain one-dimensional, insular, boring.

There are a number of character traits seen in those who are adept at thinking through often complex policy choices. In an interview on the David Rubenstein Show, the 46-year-old US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, offered his views on policy planning.

As head of the National Security Council, Sullivan, who has been close to the 80-year-old President Biden for many years, explained that his job was to run an open and vigorous process, with competing views fully aired.

Only the most difficult decisions land on the President’s desk, he noted. And, he indicated that the choices were rarely zero on one side and 100 on the other. What does he believe is an absolutely necessary trait for good policy planners? Humility!

Sullivan, who has a masters in philosophy from Oxford and is a Yale Law graduate, declared that in a Washington, DC, where few ever admit that they are wrong, he found that admission of error was a demonstration of intellectual honesty and acuity.

How often have we been in chat groups or book clubs in person or online, where participants have declared an opinion or position on a given issue, ranging from the rise and collapse of FTX to strategies to combat COVID-19? But when an opinion is proven weak or wrong, how often does someone admit error? Another attribute found in superior policy thinkers is curiosity and the ability to question one’s assumptions.

CURIOSITY

Curiosity is insatiable, lasting a lifetime if we are fortunate. Alas, the older some grow, the more rigid they often become, afraid to grow, clinging desperately to their shibboleths, certainties and fundamentalisms of all stripes.

Collectively, here at home, we are often consumed by a wasteland of incuriosity, an indifference and sometimes hostility to knowledge and facts, often little regard for greater insight and understanding, disinterest in an encyclopedia of whys about our world and universe.

A profile in Politico this year on Dr Susan Rice, President Biden’s Domestic Policy Advisor, showcased some of the background and characteristics of those who enjoy extraordinary policy and political chops in government.

Dr Rice has played a pivotal role in many of President Biden’s myriad and impressive domestic policy successes. The White House website noted: “As Director of the Domestic Policy Council, she drives the formulation and implementation of President Biden’s domestic policy agenda, from economic mobility and racial equity to health care and immigration.

In the Politico profile Ron Klain, Biden’s Chief of Staff, enthused about Dr. Rice: “‘There is a reason that she is the only person in American history to have led both the White House’s National Security Council and its Domestic Policy Council,” Klain said. “She has unique talents, intellect, and determination to get results.”

KNOWHOW

The article noted: “The scope of her fiefdom is as remarkable as how she managed to secure it. Having eschewed a public-facing role, Rice has relied on a combination of internal maneuvering and bureaucratic know-how to place herself at the nerve centre of some of the fiercest debates roiling Washington.”

Dr Rice served as President Obama’s National Security Advisor from 2009-2017 and as US Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Obama reportedly wanted to name her as Secretary of State, but she did not get the post because of the political firestorm over the killing of two US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya.

Dr Rice has a BA with honors in History from Stanford University and a master’s degree and PhD in international relations from Oxford. She was a Rhodes Scholar at the University.

She was able to pivot from foreign to domestic policy because of her tremendous intellect, curiosity and knowledge of the DC bureaucracy and how to push through policy from conception to implementation.

President Biden has advisors like Mr Sullivan and Dr Rice. One of Prime Minister Mottley’s key advisors is Barbadian Avinash Persaud, a special envoy, who has helped her to think through and draft key documents on a range of economic policy matters.

Dr Persaud’s “career spans finance, public policy and academia. He is Emeritus Professor of Gresham College … and a former senior executive at GAM London, State Street, JP Morgan and UBS.” Mr Persaud has served on a variety of international economic and financial commissions.

Every head of government requires expert advisors in various areas. In The Bahamas, we have repeatedly mistakenly misunderstood various roles. Because an individual was a television presenter does not mean they can adeptly serve as a press secretary, a role requiring certain talents and experience.

Many people in The Bahamas believe that they understand communications. Few of them are correct and they confuse PR with government public communications. With notable exceptions, many of those who have served in government communications have not understood their roles nor have the ability to perform well.

Some believe that they are policy experts despite limited understanding of the complexity of policy formation and how the government bureaucracy works, or more often, desperately fails to work.

Since Ms Teresa Butler first served as a policy advisor for Hubert Ingraham, the role has been reduced to mostly an advisor on investments. An investments advisor is one thing. But a policy advisor occupies a larger role covering all of government.

In the weeks ahead more on the kinds of structures needed to craft and implement public policy. A place to begin is for us to ensure that our prime ministers have the quality and depth of intellectual talent and special advisors found in countries where policy planning is taken more seriously.

Comments

themessenger 1 year, 6 months ago

Great article! No worries however, Brave has Fred Mitchell, Obie Wilchcombe, Glenys Hanna-Martin, Halkitis and others close to hand. Assisted by this array of towering intellect along with the double speak skills of Clint Watson how could he possibly fail? All will be well in the Promised Land.

sheeprunner12 1 year, 6 months ago

The 242 politicians are only willing to change the laws that benefit their political fortunes or the pockets of their main benefactors. We see and hear of a lot of Bills being introduced and debates taking place and the launching of Committees and Commissions with much fanfare. Acts are passed with much banging on the desks or tables in Parliament.

BUT .......... hard decisions are kicked down the road OR a facade is created that reform is happening, but it is not changing the status quo (FOIA is a classic case)

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