Tuesday, January 23, 2018

What Are You Implying? Policy, Dammit!

I spent the weekend in suburban NYC for a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellows retreat, and it was great to get much feedback from folks with far more expertise on Japan.  It was also nice to have an opportunity to meet the people I have been emailing ever since I applied for the fellowship.  They were also very helpful, and I am grateful for the opportunity. 

One of the sessions focused on deriving policy implications from one's work, and this session was helpful but had the same problem as most stuff on policy implications.  Before I get to that, I should note that there has been a heap of discussion in person and online lately about whether we should be asking folks to develop policy implications from their work.  My basic stance: if there are policy implications, then, yes, develop and express them.  If the work is too theoretical or too early in its development, then no.  And, of course, I just gave an assignment to my PhD seminar to develop policy implications even though they are just starting out, so, yeah, that rule does not seem to apply so much when I am teaching.

Anyhow, the fundamental problem with figuring out policy implications is not distilling what one's findings say about what kinds of policies should be developed.  No, the problem is developing these implications so that someone in power will find them interesting and attractive.  For instance, the classic policy implication for much ethnic conflict/intra-state conflict work is: prevention is less costly, more effective and less problematic than intervention after the violence starts.  Okey dokey.  The problem is: who gets credit for preventing something?  Which media outlets like to cover non-events?  Hey, look, no violence in this country this month!  The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Violence spent a great deal of effort to argue that prevention was more effective, more efficacious, and more strategically sound than not preventing and yet ... we underinvest in prevention. On the other hand, experts said that austerity is good--governments should spend less--and this got picked up by right wing parties since it fit their ideology and their preferred policies.  Was it smart/good for their societies?  I think not.  But the policy implications of this economic work were bought by those who wanted to buy them.

So, how does one develop policy implications that politicians will find attractive?  That is the trick, and I haven't figured it out despite being 25 or so years into my career (and caring about policy implications a bit more since 2002).  In my current project on legislative oversight of armed forces, I think I know why legislators pay less attention to overseeing the armed forces in most democracies although the research is still underway--does anyone vote for a representative/Senator/parliamentarian based on their performance in overseeing the armed forces?  Probably not too many folks, so it is understandable that legislators don't put much effort into it (as far as we can tell thus far).  What we will have to figure out by the end of the project is why it would be in the interest of politicians to care about it--not just in the interest of their country but in the interest of their party and in the interest of the individuals who would be doing oversight.

That's the trick.  Once I figure that out, the next step is to figure out how to get the policy made, not just advocated.  Oh my.

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