Policy and Persuasion

First published in theSun here, on 21 December 2017.

OVER the last few months, I had the privilege of teaching a class of final year undergraduate students at Nottingham University the 101 of public policy.

This seemed to be a perfect match, seeing as how I have been working in public policy in various capacities within government, think tanks and civil societies over the last decade or so.

Quite unlike some of the other more academic modules the students would have been exposed to, this would be one of the rare occasions in which they would examine the practical and real-life applications of their university knowledge, whether in the fields of economics, international relations or environmental science.

It is interesting that the university offers this subject at all – many students graduate from university (myself included) being equipped only with the knowledge provided by academic sources, with perhaps some research and experimentation thrown in.

Even essays and assignments are written towards an academic end; no harm in and of academia itself, since after all, this is the path I am pursuing myself.

But to transform this knowledge into the nuts and bolts of how things actually work in the real world was my task over the last semester.

That is, to make sense of the often complicated and highly complex way in which policies are adopted, implemented and evaluated within any political system of government.

In fact, the understanding of “how things work in public policy” is not common knowledge.

It does require firsthand experience of having worked in some capacity with or within government.

Probably worse is that there is poor comprehension of what “public policy” even means.

In my lecture preparation, I found there was very little Malaysian material on public policy to refer to.

Because so much of what is available out there is based on a largely Western context, it was important for me to ground examples and case studies within the Malaysian context instead.

For the purposes of my lessons, I referred to public policy as a course of government or public action or inaction in response to public problems.

In short, the issue needs to be public in nature, and one in which members of a community would have an interest, for it to qualify. Second, it should be a problem for which something can be done, and where a solution is possible.

Public policy is wide and all-encompassing, inclusive of formally approved policy goals and means, regulations and practices of agencies, and can take the form of laws, regulations, circulars and directives, long-term plans and very simply, policies.

In Malaysia, public policy would be derived from sources such as the Federal Constitution 1957, laws like the Petroleum Development Act 1974 and the Medical Act 1971, the Companies Regulations 2017, Ministry of Finance circulars on public procurement, long-term plans like Transformasi Negara 2050 (TN50) and even longer term policies like the National Vision Policy.

There are multiple actors in the public policy process.

Imagine any policy that is being proposed within Parliament – particularly a controversial one – and one could picture these interest groups playing their respective roles.

These stakeholders would be a mix of policymakers, politicians (since the process of policymaking is in fact very political), policy analysts, activists, academia, media, global interests as well as the general public.

But how is government policy approved?

A textbook model of understanding the public policy process is clean and methodical: First, you set the agenda by deciding which problems will be addressed by public policy; second, you formulate the policy by consulting with stakeholders, based on research and evidence; third, the policy is adopted via means of legal statute at the federal or state level; fourth, the policy is implemented through the government bureaucracy; fifth, the policy is assessed and evaluated as to its merits; and finally, a new policy issue emerges, which starts the process all over again from the beginning.

Of course, the reality of what takes place is far from constructed. There are multiple and sometimes, competing forces at play.

Policymakers are not always equipped with the full amount of information required to make informed decisions.

Economic, political and social conditions are dynamic and fluctuate violently, making it difficult especially for long-term policies – do you adapt according to changing times, or ensure stability for the country by maintaining a certain policy for good?

Governments may also tend to intervene when they see the need, depending on the ideological nature of whichever political party is in power.

In Malaysia, we have only ever known one coalition at the federal level, so interventions are more likely to be political than they are ideological.

There are instances where government might want to intervene for moral or ethical reasons, for example to break up monopolies or oligopolies that have formed.

Again, this is dependent on the country’s economic system and to what extent governments believe in the market system.

It has been interesting examining Malaysia’s public policy processes as an outsider over the last weeks, also coinciding with the reflective period of the end of the year.

The question weighing on my mind – and probably that of my students’ too – is whether any actors outside of the upper echelons of government (read: Prime Minister’s Office) have truly been successful in influencing public policy at all.

Have the efforts of the so-called independent intelligentsias been effective in changing policy? Swaying public opinion? The subject I taught was, after all, about persuasion as well. This I explore in future columns.

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