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Enriching expertise of policy analysts and developers

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Akintola Benson-Oke
THOSE involved in the public policy process need to possess strong analytical skills and the ability to apply a variety of research and evaluation methods within a complex political and economic environment.

Understand that analysis is different from decision making.  Policy analysts and planners usually give advice to their principals; they do not make decisions for them. This has important implications for the types of analyses that are done and, even more importantly, for the methods of communicating the results of analysis. The principal will make the final choice and should be able to re-analyse the policy data. This means that critical assumptions, values, and uncertainties must be reported.

Thus, when the analysis is done well, the decision maker will be able to weigh the consequences of changes in assumptions, values, and uncertainties and come to an independent conclusion. In some cases the principal will be seeking a recommendation. In such a case, the reccomendation should be clearly spelt out and presented.

Focus quickly on the central decision criterion (or criteria) of the problem requiring attention. The relevant questions to ask are: what factor of the problem is most important to the government? On what criterion is the decision likely to be made? Will it be minimising the cost of some service? Or might it be to spend more effectively the funds now allocated to the activity? Perhaps, it will be to broaden the base of those being served by the programme. On what basis can we judge the merits of alternative policies or programmes? Without doubt, identifying the central “nugget” of the problem is essential.

In some cases, of course, the criterion can be inferred from legislative intent; in others you might have to exhume it from a mountain of seemingly patternless reading material. Yet, focusing on the central decision criterion will help identify needed information. Of course, there are dangers in choosing the nugget prematurely. There is indeed a tendency to choose the one that can be defined and measured most easily (e.g., least cost) while possibly ignoring more important but less quantifiable goals and impacts and forgetting about who pays and who benefits from the pol­ icy. There is also a distinct possibility that several competing and equally valid decision criteria exist, and that early focussing will dismiss the alternatives forever.

Avoid the Tool-box Approach to analysing policies. We are well aware that some disciplines specify analytical routines in detail for many circumstances. This may encourage some people to begin work on a policy problem because it lends itself to their favourite method. Ideally, and in my view, the problem should dictate the methods, not vice versa. It is my hope that this training will emphasise the need to avoid the tool-box approach. I advise using the simplest appropriate method, and using common sense to design a method if one does not already exist. Combine methods if you must. Use more than one whenever possible. Apprehension often forces us back to the methods with which we feel most comfortable, but try to avoid this tendency.

Indeed, the principal tools of the policy planner are logic, common sense, and ex­ perience with particular substantive areas. It helps to be practiced in data analy sis, rational problem solving, and other specific skills. But more often than not we design our own approach or methodology to policy problems. This  kind of creativity  becomes easier the more policy analysis we do and the more we learn what the recipient of the report, be they real or simulated (in exercises and cases), find under­ standable and useful to their deliberations.

Accept and embrace uncertainty as an integral part of the exercise. Neophyte analysts are often tempted to isolate each parameter of a policy problem and then establish their most likely future values. Having tacked down the key parameters of the problem (because the task is never-ending, many spend most of their allocated time on this phase), they believe the problem can be solved. This approach is often a waste of time. Therefore, more experienced policy analysts recommend basic methods of decision analysis and sensitivity testing that can aid in analyzing important parts of a policy problem even if one cannot find values for certain variables.

This will be illustrated with a familiar illustrative policy question: Should a city waive property taxes for x years on certain properties in order to encourage their redevelopment? Experience shows that some analysts spend all their time trying to find out (for sure) whether the tax abatement will cause the development. Almost no time gets spent trying to analyse what the costs and benefits of such a programme would likely be if it were instituted and did  or did not cause development. Learning to live  with and work with uncertainty is a must for policy analysts. Policy analysts must therefore accept and reconcile themselves to the fact that uncertainty is present in nearly every public policy problem.

Having highlighted the mindset and soft skills required for success in this endeavour above, permit me to briefly emphasise the importance of the policy making function in governance. The policy making and implementation function in governance is vitally important because governments are repeatedly confronted with problems that call for apt and appropriate solutions. In the times we live in, these problems have taken on complex characteristics and features. Also, they usually demand urgent attention and response. Thus, the government of a metropolitan state such as Lagos State (which is also a global city) cannot afford not to have a pool of skilled, trained and current policy analysts and developers who will assist the government in designing the right, appropriate and suitable answers to these complex and urgent problems.

According to Carl V. Paton and David S. Sawicki,2 while there are different ways to describe the problems confronting modern society, the general characteristics of these problems can be stated as follows:

These problems are seldom well-defined;

The solutions to these problems cannot usually be proven to be correct before application;

There is never a guarantee that the proposed or adopted solution will achieve the desired or intended result;

Solutions deemed appropriate and/or applicable are seldom both best and/or cheapest;

e.The adequacy of the solution is often difficult to measure against notions of the public good; and

f.The fairness of the proposed or adopted solutions is usually impossible to measure objectively.

Thus, given the dynamic and complex nature and characteristics of the problems that confront policy analysts and developers, the rationale for this training cannot but be acknowledged. Again, given the resolve of the administration of His Excellency, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, to be a responsive and responsible democratic government acting in the interests of the people of Lagos State, one may readily appreciate why this training is of utmost importance to the government of Lagos State.

Governor Ambode has made it clear to the Ministry of Establishments, Training, and Pensions that the mandate to train and re-train officers of the public service must not only be executed but must also be dynamically executed in such a fashion as to ensure that officers of the Lagos State Public Service are equipped with the most current skills and knowledge necessary to assist the government in the discharge of its sacred constitutional and democratic duties.

At the end of this training, it is the expectation of the government of Lagos State that the participating officers will be better able to appreciate:

a.What policy analysis involves and its typical institutional settings;

b.The personal and professional attributes required to be an effective policy analyst;

c.What role government plays in society and its limitations and strengths compared with other social institutions, including markets;

d.How to integrate market analysis, cost-benefit analysis, comparative institutional analysis, and evaluation methods into policy research exercises;

e.How to effectively engage in consultation, team work, and conflict management during policy formulation and analysis;

f.How to clearly scope and develop policy ideas and present policy analyses effectively for multiple audiences; and

g.How to work effectively with others to promote sound policy solutions

8.The objectives enumerated above represent the indices now regarded, as a matter of global best practice, as essential knowledge and practice for public sector policy experts. The value to be derived from them are not quantifiable. But, as always, we must take great pains to carefully domesticate them both institutionally and individually, taking care to avoid importing practices that are not workable under our local circumstances. Beyond this, however, we must be challenged to aspire to the highest standards of governance and administration that the citizens expect from the government.

Being text of speech delivered by Dr. Benson-Oke, Lagos State Commissioner for Establishments, Training and Pensions.

 

 

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