The politics of solving public problems

The politics of solving public problems

This past weekend (March 16, 2024), the first topic of discussion on Joy News’ Newsfile programme was the current power challenges or what we call in local parlance “dumsor.”

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The panel had the – a) NDC view; b) NPP view and c) independent nonpartisan view.

Let me add that there is still contention over whether it is “dumsor” Ghanaians are experiencing or not.

In politics, I understand perfectly why it matters.

At the end of the day though, there is still a public problem that needs solving.

What one chooses to call it or not may not be of importance to the ordinary citizen who just wants a reliable and constant supply of electricity every day. 

As the conversation went on, I was struck by two statements – a) “if we take away the politics” and b) “the difficulty of the politics”.

Although “dumsor” is the impetus for this piece, the real issue is what the two statements point to — the injection of politics complicates and makes difficult the search for solutions to public problems.

 If the world were perfect, public policy would be devoid of politics, particularly partisan politics.

 The two worlds are, however, intertwined.

Why politics complicates policy

In democracies where there is a regular cycle of competitive elections, public problems offer political actors perverse incentives – a) the opportunity to blame; b) the resort to comparisons; and c) the desire to score political points.

What do I mean by the perverse incentives listed?

The search for solutions to emerging public problems always quickly degenerates into a blame game. 

Ruling parties, under whose watch the problem is occurring, are likely to treat it as one of legacy — an inheritance from a predecessor who failed to address the problem in the past adequately.

 Opposition parties take a different approach.

They blame ruling parties because, to them, an emerging public problem is an issue of incompetence on the part of a ruling party.  

In addition to the opportunity to blame, when the public problem is a recurring one, political actors tend to engage in a game of comparisons.

Ruling parties tend to argue two things – a) the problem was worse in the past due to the failures of their political competitors or b) the current problem as being experienced by citizens is different and not as grave.  

Sometimes, they argue both points.

Opposition parties tend to push back on such narratives by a) asserting that the problem was “solved” in the past and b) its reoccurrence is the failure of the ruling party to consolidate the solutions inherited.

The last perverse incentive — interest in scoring political points — is why political actors engage in the blame game and resort to comparisons.

Ruling parties know the potential political liability public problems present to them, especially in an election year.

They know this because of past leveraging of such public problems for political gain.

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Under such a scenario, ruling parties work hard to insulate themselves from any possible political fallouts with sometimes very intriguing narratives. 

For an opposition party that suffered political liability for public problems in the past, the incentive is to ensure the ruling party experiences the same fate.

 In that context, any opposition party will link public problems to the performance of the ruling party.

They go as far as seizing the problem as the reason why they must be returned to power so the problem can be solved.  

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This is the world of politics and public policy.

This problem is not unique to Ghana’s democracy.

 Just observe congressional politics in the United States, as well as the current presidential campaign season.

It will be very clear that indeed, partisan politics adds a layer of difficulty and complexity to solving public problems.

Even as I describe these things are perverse incentives, which in my opinion are harmful to the policy process, there are elements of truth in them.

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Public problems are a reflection of many things including the reasons political actors ascribe to them.

They are just not all and always present in each public problem context. 

Way forward

Political competitors understand how voters deal with these perverse incentives during elections– a) who to blame and punish and b) who to absolve and reward. 

At the same time, citizens still expect their public problems to be solved.

It is easy to call for a bipartisan approach to solving public problems.

 But that is what political actors must commit to doing.

The desire to depoliticise public problems is one we must continue to strive for. 

The constant engagement in partisan “fights” over who is the blame or not serves only a limited purpose — politics.

 It does not solve problems.

In a world of regular competitive elections, the realist in me says “this is wishful thinking.”

The writer is the Executive Director of Democracy Project, a political think-tank.

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