Key to good policies? It's a matter of time

Seeing time as a stream with three aspects is a handy tool in assessing public policy options

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 4:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 4:03am

When I studied public administration at Harvard University back in the 1980s, I picked up a powerful conceptual tool that has proven a handy guide in assessing public policy options.

Policymakers should think in time, seeing time as a stream: the present as the future of the past; the future as emergent from the present; and the future as how it may be when it becomes the past.

In tackling a current problem, we must know in the first instance how it came about. Reflecting on "the present as the future of the past" means going back to the reasoning of former policymakers, and the context in which the policy was made.

Without this historical perspective, policymakers could be lost in the labyrinth of choices for solutions.

Take waste management, for example. How come former policymakers stuck to landfills for so long when the world had known for a long time they left permanent and poisonous scars and were not sustainable?

Making the history clear helps in explaining to the public why we should change course.

The second dimension is to see "the future as emergent from the present". Every policy has its impact. The present situation is the starting point for change.

For example, it would be unrealistic to aim to reduce waste significantly in a short time, because the public need time to absorb why they should care and how they may help. But recycling can be implemented more quickly if the government takes the initiative.

The third and final dimension of policymaking is the most important: "envisioning the future as it becomes the past". Policymakers should try to think ahead in time and assess what people might think of policies 10 to 20 years after a policy's implementation.

This is particularly tricky as thinking ahead involves judgments and assumptions that could be subjective and self-serving. But it is a must because it provides an essential perspective on whether the solution is worthwhile. Group or peer assessment would serve the purpose better.

Again, take waste management as an example. How will the public react to an incinerator a decade after its commissioning? Will they regard it as a fung shui eyesore and poison-gas generator, or an effective waste-to-energy converter? If it is the latter, should we plan ahead to build more, given that one burner would be far from enough to cater for future needs, assuming we close all landfills in due course? If there is a high chance that the public would still see it as an obnoxious facility, then should we implement a vigorous waste reduction-cum-recycling plan instead?

Thinking in time enables policymakers to analyse problems and to plan for solutions with 3D vision. It should be made a core unit for all master of public administration programmes.

Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council