Policy: Prescription, Analysis and Hot Air

There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste.

I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education.

So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah.

There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country.

And then we are off and running with the prescriptions: spending should be increased, teachers should be paid better, curriculum should be improved, television should be used, libraries should be added, blah, blah, blah.

(The lengths of these two lists are a function almost entirely of the time at the disposal of the writer or the word limit assigned by some editor.)

Which gets us to the conclusion: Of course there are many other things that can be done but this would provide a good start.

Hello. Hang on. So what is the value-added here? Half a century down the road there are still people who don’t know education is in trouble, that it is important, that libraries can help?

When I go with a fever to a doctor, I want to know the nature of my ailment before talking about medicines. If the doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong with me, I take my custom elsewhere. In health, going from symptoms to prescription requires a diagnosis (what is the cause of the fever?) and an incorrect diagnosis can spell disaster.

In policy, moving from problem description to prescription calls for an analysis. Why exactly are we in a particular predicament? Without an analysis there is little really to talk about, just one laundry list against another, and a misconceived prescription could worsen the problem with unintended consequences.

What I want to know, for example, is why, when everyone realizes the importance of libraries, their number is decreasing? Why, when television can so easily be used to teach, it is not? Why, when the curriculum could so readily be improved, it is not? And, so on.

I want to know why governments are not doing things that almost everyone knows need to be done. And I want to know whether governments could really do those things if by some miracle they wanted to.

I rarely come across such analyses. Nor do I come across many big ideas or intellectual frameworks in which disparate elements of prescriptive laundry lists hang together with some coherence.

Once in a while I hear we need more morality in education or more loyalty to the national ideology. Once in a while some big guru comes along to tell us this time it would be different. When I ask why, the guru goes religious and advises faith.

This is not an opinion about education so I don’t intend to supply an analysis here. In health there are laboratories that can provide a fairly good diagnosis even when the doctor is not fully on the ball. Where are the laboratories of the public policy domain? Should we rely on our elite educational institutions? But aren’t they a part of the malaise? Should we expect them from our consulting houses? But do they want to bite the hand that feeds?

This is an opinion about opinions, in particular those dealing with public policy that regurgitate descriptions and prescriptions without analysis. And so, in the spirit of my critique, I must explain why we have to deal with so many opinions that say so little.

In my analysis, the proximate cause is the lack of quality control in our media. To put it bluntly, almost any semi-coherent set of sentences makes it into print or on the air. While there is little analysis in print, pundits have more room to shoot the breeze on air. There we come across the type of analysis that relies on one-dimensional explanations – corruption, overpopulation, lack of money and decline in morality being by far the favorites.

Few bother to look across borders to see that the scale of corruption is far bigger in India and the number of people much larger in China and yet public policies there are not less effective. Nor do they ask why bombs and bullets have higher priority than schools and hospitals or why, even if they do, we fail to collect more taxes.

Few bother to note that while the land area of Pakistan is unchanged (at least since 1971), the number of mosques has multiplied – one can often hear six calls to prayer from any one point (all out of sequence and off pitch). So why has morality declined?

The kind of opinions we are exposed to would never make it in a medium that respected its audience, wished to educate it in any way, or depended for its survival on the quality of its output.

There is clearly a dearth of analytical training with hardly a school of public policy in the country and lack of motivation to contribute by those who are trained. A friend keeps complaining that Pakistani academics do not debate the government’s policy proposals. I agree it is important to debate, in general, but engaging with ritualistic pronouncements of deaf governments is hardly the best use of time.

Besides, all output is based on a calculus of supply and demand, or so we teach our students. So where exactly is the demand for sound analysis that should motivate academics or concern the media? There is an unsatiated demand for prescriptions and hot air and therefore no surprise there is a limitless supply of quacks and pundits peddling their wares. We get what we deserve or are willing to pay for. Enjoy. If it destroys the country, so be it – Allah maalik hai.

 

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