Good government and the policy sciences

by Lance McMahon

In the 17th century, Britain was torn apart by a ruinous civil war. A witness to the catastrophic effects of the war reflected on the importance of a government providing order to society. He wrote that in the absence of government due to war, there are “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The writer, Thomas Hobbes, included this famous passage in his magisterial book ‘Leviathan’, regarded today as the first great study of government to be written in the English language. In ‘Leviathan’, Hobbes argues that statecraft based on strong, unified government order is the necessary bulwark against the ever-present threat of descending into disorder and brutishness.

Sadly, in the three and half centuries since Hobbes put pen to paper, the world has seen too many examples of government collapsing into chaos, with Syria being the most recent and contemporary notable example. For the unfortunate people of Syria, life currently is nasty, brutish, and in too many cases, short.

The example of Syria reminds us that Hobbes’s observations are still valid today. Following Hobbes, further great thinkers tackled the issue of not only why good government is important but also the thorny question of what good government actually is.

In the mid-20th century, an influential contributor to this body of knowledge was the American, Harold Lasswell. His explicit aim was to strengthen good democratic government through improved policy processes and programme delivery.
Lasswell was, like Hobbes, writing in response to a period of extreme brutishness. In Lasswell’s case, it was the horrors of World War II and the pernicious evils of Nazism that led him to reflect on the nature of good government.

Lasswell was particularly interested in how democracies managed the multi-faceted rational planning in government administration, social affairs, the economy, industry and science as well as the military that played a key part in securing superiority for the Allied powers over their Axis rivals and consequently delivered victory.

Lasswell was not alone in seeking new methods to better manage government and business in the wake of the sophisticated organisational lesson stemming from the war. However, Lasswell’s approach was distinctive from other post-war thinkers. His view was that good government was all about ‘problem solving’. He drew his views together under the intellectual umbrella of ‘policy sciences’, an early published example being with his colleague Daniel Lerner in their 1951 publication, ‘The Policy Sciences’.

This conception of policy sciences was as a multi-disciplinary branch of social sciences, specialising in public policy. While public policy had prior to this commonly been the domain of political scientists, Lasswell recognised the importance of contributions from economists, sociologists, lawyers and other areas of expertise involved in the processes of governing.

Lasswell’s view was that policy sciences should centre on problem solving as a matter of course. By problem solving, he meant dealing with the real world, day-to-day issues that good governments face as a matter of routine as opposed to remote theoretical or arcane debates on public affairs.

He also saw policy sciences as being practical and prescriptive, sifting good values from bad values and choosing what should be done or not done. This approach is labelled a normative one in the social science context.

It may be fair to observe that some of Lasswell’s prospectus for policy sciences seems overly optimistic, as many succeeding writers have expressed in a broad variety of critiques, somewhat harshly in a number of cases given the advantage of sixty odd years of hindsight.
While acknowledging this caveat, it is also fair to claim that the original conception of policy sciences, however termed, is still of vital importance to securing and maintaining good government. In many senses, current academic endeavour is building on the foundations laid by Lasswell.

So what are the key features for good democratic government distilled from Lasswell and other leading writers in the field? Firstly and most simply, good public policy matters. If citizens are confident in the policy setting and implementation capabilities of government, this settles disquiet and promotes enhancement and advancement. Conversely, bad public policy leads to citizen disengagement and a multitude of pathologies.

Good public policy clearly sets out the objectives of the government of the day. To maintain a focus on objectives, policy makers utilise a policy cycle that passes onward from identifying a problem to be rectified through choosing what actions and resources are required then to who should be consulted, and how.

From this point, policy makers seek coordination of all actors and factors involved then move to actual implementation, the actual activity delivering a solution to the problem. Finally, policy makers evaluate the whole process to determine if it was successful and what adjustments, if any, are needed to improve the route to the solution.

For almost all areas of public policy, the cycle is continuous as there is no point at which an ultimate solution is achieved. Education, healthcare, defence and environmental protection are a few examples of public policy concerns that continue to need to be addressed on an on-going basis.

As good public policy is crucial to the prospects of a nation, it is critically important to have talented, well-trained ethical people as policy makers and implementers. Without this ingredient, public policy, no matter how well designed and intended, will fail.

Lance McMahon is a University Associate at the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin Business School, at Curtin University’s main campus in Perth, Western Australia. He lectures in Curtin Sarawak’s Master of Policy Sciences programme delivered in Miri and Kuching. Lance can be contacted by e-mail to