How cultural disconnect can lead to disastrous policy decisions
In the early 1990s, while setting up the Child Support Agency (CSA), policymakers in the British government made a common but grave mistake. Ministers and government officials working on the policy lived in a world where couples that split up went on to form a new family or perhaps none at all. They were oblivious to the lives of a large proportion of the people who would be affected by the CSA. The real world, in which fathers often had multiple children by multiple mothers, and mothers often had multiple children by multiple fathers, was unfamiliar to them. The people in question were not well-to-do businessmen, solicitors or Members of Parliament — they were on social security or low wages. One senior policymaker at the Department of Social Security admitted they “hadn’t appreciated that very large numbers of people, both men and women, now lead very complicated lives.”
Such misguided policymaking can be attributed to a number of things. In their book “The Blunders of Our Governments,” Anthony King and Ivor Crewe state that this is a result of what they call “cultural disconnect” — the policymakers’ alienation from how large sections of the population live from day to day. Others may say it is due to projection bias (where one thinks that others have the same priorities, attitudes or beliefs that one harbors). I would argue that one leads to the other.
The policymakers working to set up the CSA did so on the assumption that the beneficiaries led lives similar to their own, mainly due to the fact that they were formed and informed by an entirely different culture. While we are all naturally susceptible to projection bias that stems from cultural disconnect, in the context of public policy the stakes for such biases are much higher for obvious reasons. First, public policy touches the lives of millions of people and the impact of any misguided decisions can have compounded negative effects on their lives. Second, a wrong turn can cost governments considerable sums it could have put to better use.
Policymakers must remember that one of the main functions of a government is ensuring that policies are put in place to protect and serve even the most vulnerable segments of society.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Being distant from the very people policies are meant to serve leaves policymakers vulnerable to falling prey to their own biases and prejudices, and the case of the CSA in the UK is not uncommon. After all, policymakers are human and it is only natural that they should make decisions based on unconscious biases. Consider this example: A female policymaker decides that a paid maternity leave of two months is sufficient for all working mothers, based on her personal experience after having two children. She neglects crucial details such as the variance in income that allows someone in her position to hire help others cannot, living in close proximity to family (now far less common than before), and the degree of flexibility given to working mothers in some organizations compared to others.
Policymakers must remember that one of the main functions of a government is ensuring that policies are put in place to protect and serve even the most vulnerable segments of society. Therefore, putting in the time and effort to stay connected to and informed about the various struggles and obstacles facing people across the entire spectrum of society is crucial to ensuring successful policies. Public policies are about the interests of the public, the people. But who are “the people?” What defines their daily lives? What are their struggles and their aspirations? From the bottom up, how do the different segments compare?
Equally important is building policies based on solid evidence, and making a clear distinction between one’s perception of the other person’s reality and the crude reality based on available evidence. Feeding high-quality evidence into policymaking is a challenge, but is vital for delivering successful public interventions. In a previous article for Arab News, I went into detail about why it is important to invest in reliable data mining and analysis, and the dangers of basing policy on assumptions. In 2014, David Allen Green wrote: “Good policy is the considered course of action by which a supposed public benefit is accomplished, which otherwise would not be accomplished, by the best use of the resources available. It is grounded in reality and thought through as to its consequences. But get policy wrong and, instead of the desired benefits, there may be further and unintended problems, or even nothing achieved at all.”
Public policy is, ultimately, for the benefit of the wider public. More importantly, public policy is about protecting the rights and interests of the most vulnerable segments of society, all the way to the least vulnerable. If you are a public policymaker, it may be tempting to think of yourself as part of the public, and measure the success of policies based on your reality and your needs, but this can be far from the reality society’s most vulnerable know.
Fighting our natural biases is no easy feat; neither is breaking out of our comfortable social circles to understand how other segments of society differ. It is, however, the necessary course of action to create successful policies that serve the public and ensure public resources are put to the best use.
- Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif