The art of the possible

I had a long conversation with someone today who expressed considerable frustration with what he called the lack of good public policy analysis in government these days. He complained about the lack of internal public policy analysis skills and was even more critical about the consultant business and the long, technical reports that get published obstensibly in support of public policy but that don’t really help to move the ball down the field.

His suggestion was that the government should set up an internal research and public policy shop that would generate ideas and provide support to government in the development of good public policy.

Now, I’ll tell you what I tried to tell him – but disaggregate this to economic development public policy because I don’t know if the same concepts apply to health care or social programming or education.

I think the problem is that most of the ‘experts’ internally and externally look at things using some version of the scientific method. That is, they are always trying to disprove the hypothesis. So with any good idea that comes along the immediate reaction is skeptism and efforts to explain why things can’t work. Consider the previously proposed energy park for Sussex that I had some involvement with. The feedback from all parts of government that were involved and the consultants that were hired was essentially negative. The idea was shelved and everyone moved on.

But if you think about it for a minute you could quickly make the case why auto, aerospace, animation, eLearning, IT outsourcing, financial services, data centres and just about every sector of the economy (except the dreaded tourism) can’t work in New Brunswick. We have no ‘critical mass’. The government doesn’t have the money to invest. Our institutions are not capable enough. Our workforce is not skilled enough. So, using the scientific method, we are royally screwed.

But economic development public policy should not be about ‘ruling out’ options, it should be about the art of the possible. New ideas should be eagerly pursued and promoted – not in a cavalier way – not in a stupid way – but in a well thought out but development-oriented way. You may say this is semantics but I say it is foundational. Most of the folks I talk to and read about – even in the think tanks and external public policy groups – are finding ways to kibosh ideas. Or they are serving up trite analysis with these swooping kinds of statements. AIMS is especially good at this. Governments MUST do this or MUST do that. Well, Bernard Lord cut your friggin’ small business tax rates to the bone and the result? The second worst small business creation rate in North America.

So, I’d like to see New Brunswick get a whole lot better at idea generation and pursuit. Fill the hopper with ridiculously crazy ideas (like being the launching pad for space tourism – ooops, Cape Breton beat us to that one) and winnow them down based on the art of the possible. And then pursue some innovative approaches with vigour and determination.

So to tie this back up to the top. More public policy analysis and better research may be part of the solution but unless you marry that with a deep understanding of economic development, you will just get 100 rejections instead of the 10 rejections you get today.

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0 Responses to The art of the possible

  1. mikel says:

    Oh, dude, how can you say that. If that is what an educated guy thinks the scientific method is, then NB is certainly doing a bad job in teaching science.

    The scientific method doesn’t disprove hypothesis, it formulates them, it simply doesn’t hold onto evidence that is patently false because that would be a waste of time.

    In economic development the same is true, and lets take an example like in Vermont. Here, each region gets a certain amount of money. The locals then come forward with their ideas for economic development. Each is evaluated during a set period, say two or three years. The policies that turn out to be bear fruit are then typically accepted by the other areas ‘because they work’.

    In this way, numerous policies can be tried out at once. This works for other departments as well, but again, you assume that government WANTS those economic policies to proceed. What this blog has shown over and over is that THEY DON”T. So again, THAT is a policy decision and the only way to change a policy is through political means.

    But don’t tie that into the scientific method, science is already a fringe study in much of canada and especially NB, trying to make it complicit in lack of economic development just makes it worse.

    The only real question that I haven’t heard answered, is WHO specifically are these people who don’t want to advance the type of policies you talk about? Who is in charge of telling Sussex to go screw themselves? Obviously THEY are the problem, not the ‘method’ they use. If your boss shoots down all your ideas you don’t blame his ‘method’, you blame HIM.

    So you find the guys who are shooting everything down and ask them what the hell is going on. When they don’t answer, you take it public and to MLA’s and the media. You blog it every day. THEN maybe you’ll see a change.

  2. David Campbell says:

    Maybe you and I have a different angle on this but I was referring to falsifiability.

    “The scientific method involves experimentation on the basis of falsifiable hypotheses in order to answer questions and explore observations.”

    “Falsifiability is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. Falsifiability is an important concept in science and the philosophy of science.”

    “The formulation, testing, and rejection of null hypotheses is methodologically consistent with the falsifiability model of scientific discovery…”

    In my opinion, most public policy folks in the economic development realm in New Brunswick are looking to ‘reject’ the null hypotheses.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wow,are we over complicating things?

    While our tiny population that expects hospitals, schools, divided highways and even universities at every assembly of people in the double digits generally works against us, one major breakthrough economic development could completely change the provincial momentum.

    For arguement’s sake, imagine if we could attract something like a hybrid car battery manufacturing plant in the ‘chi’ employing 400 or 500 hundred people at $65K. This could have spin off effect and supply opportunities to all of NB. It would probably cost somewhere between a $60M Shippegan Caisse bailout and the annual $100M RDC patronage fund. Even if it only lasted 10 years it would get us moving in the right direction.

    One lone success could have a significant impact; that is one of the few benefits of being so small. We have had so little success in 20 years, I think it may be good to park elaborate strategies and target a single big win just to get us moving in the right direction.

  4. mikel says:

    What that means is that experiments must have observable and measured results. You can just as easily have an experiment that WORKS, as one that doesn’t-what are ya, one of those glass half empty kind of people?:)

    Falsifiability, in the above definition, is based on the notion that no theorem is ‘categorically true’, because we don’t know everything-in fact it can be argued we don’t KNOW anything.

    That doesn’t mean that scientists formulate a hypothesis based on what they can prove wrong-if they did then like ED in New Brusnwick, nothing would ever get done.

    The last paragraph you quote explains it better, the two models are ‘consistent’, but that doesn’t mean identical.

    Falsifiability is a ‘model’, NOT a ‘method’-and certainly not the scientific method. Stop reading Thomas Kuhn and do some real science:)

  5. Anonymous says:

    So, using the scientific method, we are royally screwed

    Yup – looking at things rationally – the debt and wealth redistribution has made it fiscally illogical to hope for positive change.

    However – the policies and financial deception needed to perpetrate this crime on humanity are not static.

    Unfortunately, the bureaucracy exists in large part to keep the status quo – why else would the English monarchy let us set it up?

    End the socialistic plundering of taxpayers for capitalistic gain – if you’re going to be socialist – do it wholeheartedly.

    If not – leave our wages alone – if business can be done, there’s nothing like a (truly) free market to get it done. If someone is monopolizing our resources, the separation of state and business would allow us to counteract.

    The way things are now, shady business deals have perhaps irreparably harmed any symbolic claim New Brunswick politicians could ever have to serving our best interests.

    The half-hearted or oppositional way bureaucrats are approaching new publicly financed business schemes (all the risk, none of the profit) is not a bad thing, in my books – as long as they provide the services needed by society’s weakest members before handing out cash to our business elite, they’ve made the correct decision as far as the vast majority of their constituents are concerned.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The scientific method doesn’t disprove hypothesis, it formulates them

    I might be overgeneralizing what you mean by “disprove” – but unless you mean to come to an absolute conclusion that the hypothesis is false – I’d have to disagree.

    Wikipedia:

    Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses.

    Science Buddies:

    The steps of the scientific method are to:

    * Ask a Question
    * Do Background Research
    * Construct a Hypothesis
    * Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
    * Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
    * Communicate Your Results

    Random University of California web page:

    What is the “scientific method”?

    The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion. The simple version looks something like this:

    * 1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
    * 2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
    * 3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
    * 4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.

    * 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

    When consistency is obtained the hypothesis becomes a theory and provides a coherent set of propositions which explain a class of phenomena. A theory is then a framework within which observations are explained and predictions are made.