The importance of buy-in - Social Policy Bonds

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The importance of buy-in


This page and the others under the Features head contain posts that appeared first in the Social Policy Bonds blog. For more blog posts on Social Policy Bonds and Buy-in go to the Social Policy Bonds blog page and search for buy-in in the panel at top right.

In my efforts to promulgate Social Policy Bonds I’ve usually emphasised their efficiency, which arises from a number of sources, including their harnessing of market forces, and their diversity and capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. I’ve also stressed their transparency: because the bonds target outcomes, people understand them more.

This, in turn, means another hugely important benefit: buy-in. If people understand what a policy is all about, they can participate more in its development, refinement and implementation. A Social Policy Bond regime would express its goals as outcomes that are meaningful to real people. Such outcomes would be more comprehensible to more people than the current unstated or unconsidered, vague, or platitudinous goals that characterise current policymaking. Discussion about outcomes, rather than the alleged means of achieving them, would be more accessible. If people have the chance of participating in such discussion, they will understand the limitations and trade-offs that are intrinsic to public policymaking. This means quite a few things, but to my mind the most important is buy-in: the reconnection of citizens with their policymakers; the sharing of responsibility and concern for policy initiatives.

This matters hugely when government has to rein in activities to which we have become accustomed, in the face of new threats.
Climate change, or environmental problems in general, are areas in which we need a coherent response to large and urgent challenges. Of course buy-in would be desirable in other areas too. Immigration is one subject on which buy-in is especially important. If people feel they haven’t been consulted about who is allowed into the country they live in, then it's more likely that problems will arise. Consultation on such a sensitive subject could make a lot of difference: not necessarily to the immigration flows, but to the far less quantifiable, but at least as crucial, matters of attitudes and trust.

We’re fast losing the habit of such consultation. National policy is decided by professional politicians whose policies are mainly expressed in terms of institutional structures and funding, a proliferation of micro-targets, or arcane legalistic discussion. Absent from such policymaking are outcomes that are meaningful to citizens. Government instead is concerned mainly about the means of achieving its (very often) unexpressed or mis-expressed goals. To reconnect politicians with its electorate, I have long advocated Social Policy Bonds: not only because of their likely efficiency gains, but also because they start out with an explicit statement of a meaningful policy goal. By doing that, they encourage greater public participation in policymaking. When it comes to hosting migrants from many different cultures and backgrounds, such participation, and the buy-in it generates, are essential.

The current system discourages buy-in, partly because our societies are so complex, that virtually any effect – good or bad – can be plausibly traced back to virtually any cause. And partly because political debate, centred as it is on arcane legal argument or stultifying discussion of institutional funding or structures, contributes so much to the widening gap between politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. Social Policy Bonds, because of their focus on outcomes, would help close that gap.

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