274 – Tokenistic policies

Many government actions are tokenistic. They are too small to really make a difference, but they are pursued anyway. Why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?

Listening to ABC Radio National’s breakfast program this week, I heard an interesting interview with Professor Hugh White from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He was arguing that the current response to the IS threat in Syria and Iraq is too small and constrained to achieve any significant impact on the progress of IS.

“If you find yourself, as I think we do today, undertaking military operations without making them big enough to give yourself a reasonable chance of success, you’re just going through the motions and you’re better off not doing it.”

“Going through the motions doesn’t make strategic sense and I don’t think it makes moral sense either.”

jetWhat struck me about this argument was its similarity to my own argument about some environmental investments by governments. Starting with dryland salinity, I argued that our investment was spread too thinly across too many investments for any of them to be successful. Reinforcing this, the Australian National Audit office concluded that the level of change in land management in well-monitored cases was about one percent of the level needed to achieve stated targets.

More recently, I’ve been researching other aspects of water quality (nutrients and sediment) and there too governments tend to hugely under-fund projects. For example, funding to protect the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria from nutrient and sediment pollution is around 2% of the level that would be needed to achieve the official target of a 40% reduction. (See PD210)

One question is, why do governments do this? The reasons probably vary from case to case, but I think there are two main factors. The first is, to be seen to be doing something. At least in some cases, the government realises that the funding allocated is woefully inadequate, but they proceed with the policy anyway because they think there is electoral advantage in being seen to be doing something, rather than nothing. So this is a cynical political motive.

In other cases, I think the reason is ignorance, combined with a lack of evidence and analysis in the policy-development phase, combined with a tendency towards excessive optimism about the effectiveness of a proposed policy (PD213). That was the problem with the salinity policy. Lots of people thought it was a good idea to have a policy to combat such a prominent national problem, but very few people had enough knowledge of the science and economics of salinity to recognise that the policy was badly misconceived and would achieve little. The policy approach adopted was an evolution of earlier programs (the National Landcare Program and the Natural Heritage Trust) rather than one designed after careful analysis of what it would really take to substantially reduce the impacts of salinity.

This second reason is, perhaps, less offensive than raw cynical politics, but it’s still terrible.

Another interesting question is, how do they get away with it? Why is there not more public anger directed at these politically motivated or ill-conceived policies? Here are some possibilities.

Complexity. The issues I’ve talked about are complex and multi-faceted. It can be difficult even for experts to work out what policy response would be most effective. Most people lack the expertise to judge whether any particular policy response will be effective. They don’t have the time or inclination to learn enough to make those judgements. They therefore trust governments to do what they say they are doing.

Time lags. For some of these issues, the effects of current management would not be felt for some time – years or even decades in the future. By then, it’s hard to make the connection back to policies that were put in place previously, and judge whether they made a positive difference.

Intractability. Some of these problems could be solved but only at exorbitant expense, while others can’t be solved at all in any practical sense. I suspect that governments sometimes recognise this and then implement the least costly policy they think they can get away with politically.

Communication challenges. I was interested that, in her interview with Hugh White, the program’s host Fran Kelly did not pursue questions about the tokenistic nature of the policy, focusing instead on other issues. Perhaps she felt the argument was too complex or subtle to be comprehended by people eating their Weet Bix. Or perhaps she herself didn’t recognise its significance.

Sometimes an underfunded policy does explode into political controversy because of its ineffectiveness, but usually they don’t. Normally, they drift along, spending money and going nowhere much. They might receive an adverse review from some government committee or inquiry, but governments tend not to respond substantively to those sorts of reviews if they think they can get away with it.

Overall, policy tokenism is an understandable but regrettable aspect of our system of democratic government. It is hard to combat, but sometimes can be changed by outside pressure, either from the public or from vocal expert commentators.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 54(4): 437-456. Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Roberts, A.M. Pannell, D.J. Doole, G. and Vigiak, O. (2012). Agricultural land management strategies to reduce phosphorus loads in the Gippsland Lakes, Australia, Agricultural Systems 106(1): 11-22.    Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper


  • Brian Bycroft
    14 October, 2014 - 4:11 am | link

    Part of the problem is the common use and promotion of ‘aspirational’ targets. These create a logical mis-match between the actions we are prepared to do and the desired outcome/ target. This is the case not only for the Gippsland Lakes, but is more widespread, including the Great Barrier Reef where the current actions being undertaken go nowhere near delivering the level of improvement necessary. Despite all the talk of ‘program logic’ in nrm planning, it is rarely delivered in practice.
    As a long-time former government bureaucrat, this is, in part, deliberate; it creates the pretence of concern for the outcome without needing to worry too much about paying for delivery. Part of the solution is a better promotion of proper program logic, and more honest planning processes. In the case of the Gippsland Lakes, there are actually two targets; the ‘aspirational’ target of improvement in condition as a result 40% reduction, as well as the real target of the expected improvement in condition resulting from the level of resourcing provided. This latter target is rarely articulated. In many cases, its articulation could drive the availability of more resources.

    • 14 October, 2014 - 7:21 am | link

      Beautifully put. Yes, aspirational targets in environmental and natural resource programs are one of my biggest bugbears. They seem like they are trying to stretch people to achieve more, but the practical reality is that they result in them achieving less. People in the system have become used to pulling targets out of the air without any requirement to test whether they are achievable or whether achieving them would provide value for money.

      Yes, the programs need proper program logic and honest planning. That’s exactly what we’ve tried to encourage and support with INFFER (www.inffer.org) but it’s an uphill battle, as you can imagine. Some involved in the current system think they are using program logic, but it’s just telling stories. Meaningful program logic requires quantification. It’s no help to tell a story that shows you are moving things in the right direction if it only takes you 1% of the way.

      We did a review of targets set by Catchment Management Authorities in Victoria and NSW. Looked at all targets in all catchment plans since 1997. Less than 30% of targets were specific, measurable and time-bound. Much fewer than that would have been achievable and relevant. And, depressingly, this got worse over time. See Pannell Discussion 258.

      • Brian Bycroft
        14 October, 2014 - 7:46 am | link

        I have read your article re resource condition targets. I think you could have gone further regarding ‘attainable’ targets. To me, this could simply require an analysis of whether the plan provided credible evidence that the target was attainable by undertaking the actions (eg through modelling data, etc). It is rare that the level of evidence is presented.

        • 14 October, 2014 - 7:49 am | link

          Fair comment. Yes, it’s very rare indeed. Almost non-existent.

  • Neil Barr
    14 October, 2014 - 6:36 am | link

    Its not just governments that behave this way Dave. Its human nature. A trite example is wearing the button or T-shirt to claim affiliation with others concerned about an issue. This behaviour rarely correlates with individual lifestyle change that will make a difference. Symbolic tree planting on farms was another example in the salinity funding era. Underneath this behaviour is a desire to do something, but an inability to bear the costs of making changes that will make a difference. In this sense government is just reflecting our own behaviour back towards us.

    • 14 October, 2014 - 6:46 am | link

      Thanks Neil. Interesting point. Perhaps that contributes to them getting away with it.

  • David Salt
    14 October, 2014 - 7:37 am | link

    But maybe a tokenistic response is still better than no response at all. It might be cynical and ignorant but at least it’s something that means discussions and debates are happening on the topic being responded to, and this opens the possibility of more substantive action happening down the line if the general public believe the tokenistic response was inadequate. For example, biodiversity conservation is chronically underfunded in Australia and the current government has said its focus will be on saving threatened species, but has not invested any new or significant resources towards this goal. Emerging research suggests we’re in the midst of a wave of extinctions. The inadequate (cynical and ignorant) response of the government may serve to catalyse a better response down the line if it’s perceived to be an unacceptable failure.

    • 14 October, 2014 - 7:46 am | link

      It’s worth considering this possibility. I’d feel more positive about it if I could think of an example where it had played out in the way you suggest. Can you?

      I’m inclined to think that a tokenistic response is often worse than no response at all because (a) it lets government off the hook from really addressing the problem, (b) it wastes resources that could be better spent on other things that are not tokenistic, (c) it generally involves proceeding without adequate evidence or analysis so research knowledge is excluded, and (d) it is dishonest.

  • David Godden
    14 October, 2014 - 4:01 pm | link

    Isn’t this just a “public choice” problem? Politicians know utility maximisation too -they’re just solving their private optimisation problem, rather than the social optimisation one. Why would we expect them to do anything different? After all, they face resource constraints as well. Besides, from an Australian perspective, I think I’d prefer a token response to IS. Of course, what I’d also like to see is a non-token response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa – but why would I expect a different response to Ebola than to IS?

    • 15 October, 2014 - 11:26 am | link

      In the piece, I talk about why governments sometimes knowingly make decisions to have tokenistic policies. At the end of my piece I say “Overall, policy tokenism is an understandable but regrettable aspect of our system of democratic government.” This is not inconsistent with what you are saying, I think. I’m not saying I expect differently. I’m complaining about it, but I’m not saying I’m surprised about it. I’m also arguing that some policies that are not meant to be tokenistic are in fact tokenistic because of failings of the policy process. I think it’s worth knowing this, as there are cases when it would be possible to do much better. I agree that tokenistic policies could be superior to comprehensive policies in some cases. But I still don’t like the dishonesty that governments usually exhibit when they put tokenistic policies in place.

  • Bruce Munday
    14 October, 2014 - 9:08 pm | link

    ‘Tokenistic’ has a (intended) negative connotation. However if we describe an inadequate contribution as a ‘gesture’ that would sound more positive. If it is government that has to step up it will do so with our taxes which are effectively our individual token offerings, often made grudgingly.
    Neil refers to the badge-wearing token that is often inconsistent with the wearer’s life style. But it could also be seen as a tribal gesture which encourages others to take up the cause. Ultimately environmental change (or conservation) must come from people changing behaviour; government can lead with gestures and more, but they can’t do it all. ‘Pink bats’, well managed, could have been a rare case of gov’t doing it all – but that’s another story.

    • 15 October, 2014 - 11:48 am | link

      Economists are obsessed with the question of whether governments should do more than just leave decisions about these sorts of things to the “people”. The default starting point of most economists is that governments should just leave things to people and businesses to decide, unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. The main “good reasons” they focus on are called market failures, particularly externalities, public goods, information failures and monopoly. If these issues are big enough, leaving things to the people results in outcomes that are a long way away from what would be best for the community as a whole. Extinction of whales, say, or collapses of fisheries, or oil spills in the Great Barrier Reef. Issues around the environment and natural resources are often textbook cases of externalities, public goods and information failures. In these cases, if governments don’t take ultimate responsibility, we are pretty much guaranteed to end up with very bad outcomes.

      Tokenistic responses do nothing to change this, in my view. One of the biggest failings of policies for natural resource management over the past 25 years has been a strong tendency to assume that people will change their behaviour on a big scale if governments just give them a nudge. By now, we’ve demonstrated thoroughly and repeatedly that this can happen in certain situations, but usually doesn’t. Changing behaviour on a small scale is much easier, but on a big scale is pretty well impossible to deliver unless the new behaviour is highly beneficial to the people in question, or governments spend huge amounts, like in European and US agri-environmental policies. Not that I’m arguing for that type of approach. Much of that money is wasted. A smart approach would be better than a big approach, in many cases.

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