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.