Saturday, December 11, 2021

Not Living the Dream?

I have never voted for Jacinda Ardern, but I feel quite sorry for her. She never planned to be Prime Minister of New Zealand during a pandemic. She got into politics because she wanted to get rid of child poverty, a noble goal, but probably an impossible one. She was promoted to party leader because three other leaders failed and she was an effective communicator. Nevertheless, she has led her party to two election victories, the second a landslide.

Leading her nation through the ups and downs of a pandemic was not part of her plan for life. Now she is being blamed by everyone for every decision that her government makes that people don’t like. That level of scrutiny and criticism is probably not what she signed up for, but when she got a chance to lead her country, she had to take it.

Criticism of her leadership is getting intense. Some say that her government has moved too slow; others say it is going too fast. Some say it has not done enough, and others are saying it has done too much. I presume that Jacinda Ardern is a bit of a "people pleaser", so the intense hostility will be producing considerable emotional pain.

Government Decision-making
Part of the problem is that most people don't understand how government works and just assume that PM makes all the decisions. However, the process is far more complicated, and far more people are involved in the decision-making process than many people realise.

It is easy for outsiders to say, "That was a stupid decision", or "That will not work", or "The government should stop doing that". It is easy being an armchair expert because you are not accountable for the consequences if you are wrong. The political leaders making the key decisions for the nation don't have that luxury. If they get a decision wrong, the consequences will usually be obvious, and they will get the blame, and feel responsible for the harm done.

Political leaders don't have the luxury of trying a policy to see if it will work, because if the chosen policy does not work and they try something different, the news media will accuse them of flip-flopping, and the trust of the public will be undermined. Government decision-makers have one opportunity to make a decision, and they have to get it right. That brings heavy pressure to the decision-making processes.

Policy Analysis
When a decision needs to be made, the government department responsible (Ministry of Health or MBIE in the current situation) is tasked with preparing options and collecting information to help the leaders make a decision. They can't just say, "I think we should do this and not that." They need to canvass all the possible options and calculate the costs/benefits of each if that is possible. When recommending an option, they need to think about all the reasons why the option being proposed might not work. They need to get a good understanding of all the consequences of the policy, so that the decision-makers can understand of the risks involved.

In the case of Covid, the policy analysts will need to gather information from overseas about what has worked and how effective it is. That is a difficult task because there is diverse experience and collecting accurate information about what has happened in various countries is not easy. For most countries, there will be divergent commentators arguing about what has happened and how effective policies were. It is not sufficient to listen to those who advocated the policies implemented in various countries because they will tend to defend their decisions. Other voices need to be heard to get an accurate picture of what has really happened. The analysts will also need to determine which countries have experiences relevant to the New Zealand situation.

Once the government department has drafted a paper for the Cabinet to consider, it will be circulated around other government departments that will be affected, or have to implement it, for their comments. This process does not always lead to certainty; it often increases uncertainty.

Policy analysts supporting the government will also need to collect the insights of independent experts in the universities and other agencies. Again, that is not an easy task because experts often have conflicting views. For example, the various epidemiologists active in New Zealand often hold quite contradictory views. Decisions about which ones to trust are not easy. Relying on a majority view will not always be wise.

Decisions about which policy to implement are made by the Cabinet, not the PM. A recommended policy will be brought to the Cabinet by the relevant minister (the Covid Recovery minister or Minister of Finance). The minister bringing the recommendation will be the most informed about the issue, as they will have been working with the policy analysts preparing the options. They will have had time to read much more of the background information than the PM or other members of the Cabinet.

This does not mean that the Cabinet will just rubber-stamp the recommendation of the minister responsible. There will often be sharp disagreement. All members of the Cabinet will be acutely aware of the consequences of getting it wrong, and some will have more tolerance of risk than others.

Jacinda Ardern's view will carry a lot of weight. The other members of the Cabinet will be aware that she won two elections for them, so they will be reluctant to cross her. She will be acutely aware that she has not had time to read all the information that the responsible minister has read, and will be reluctant to go against him/her. She will also be reluctant to agree to a recommendation that she cannot communicate with confidence.

The decision will often be hard to make because there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of the recommended policy. All of the options might have negative consequences, and sometimes the risk of bad consequences will be significant.

When I am faced with an important decision with uncertainty about the outcome, I can put the decision off until I get more information or the situation becomes clearer. The government often does not have that luxury. Often a decision has to be made because action is necessary. The news media and the opposition had probably been calling for a decision to be made a couple of weeks ago. The business community will be saying that they need certainty. The consequences of further delay might be serious.

Government leaders always have to think about what will happen if they do nothing. Sometimes the consequences of not taking action will be serious. Politicians who fail to act in the face of a disaster usually pay the price at the next election.

Armchair critics do not have to operationalise their decisions. They can say, "The government should do such and such", without thinking about how, or if, it could be implemented. The people really making the decisions don't make them a vacuum. They have to think about how any policy decision they make will be operationalised. They have to work through their plans with the various government departments and agencies who will be responsible for implementing them. Sometimes, the response will come back that the right thing to do would be too difficult to implement. Thinking about how decisions will be implemented slows down the decision-making process.

And once an implementation process been decided, it has to be communicated to the various agencies responsible for implementing it. Rules will have to be decided to ensure that the policy is implemented consistently across the country and for all people. These will be defined by the department responsible, but the minister will need to watch carefully to ensure that the rules decided are consistent with what the Cabinet decided.

It is virtually impossible to write rules that deal with every possible situation that might occur. Usually, the media will carry stories about people who felt they were treated unfairly by the rules, or who believe the rules did not apply to their situation. The news media will challenge the PM to respond to the victims of their stories.

The rules will be applied by people, not robots. So the implementation of the policy will not always be consistent. Some will be tougher than others. Some will be influenced by a "sob story" and give way to an applicant, whereas others would not. Some will be officious, and others will be a soft touch. The PM and the Cabinet have no direct authority over these people but are still accountable for the decisions they make. And if public servants don't apply the rules correctly, or fail to implement the cabinet decision consistently, the PM and ministers will usually have to take the blame.

Rapid Change
All these problems are compounded during a pandemic. During normal times, the government can set their own pace of change. During a pandemic, new decisions have to be made all the time. Before one decision has been implemented, another problem will be rearing its head. The policy analysts in the government department responsible will struggle to gather all the information and analysis the options in a timely manner. Before the process is complete, they will be pressed to start working on others. The speed at which have to be made will make collecting sufficient information to support good decisions will be almost impossible. The situation will be constantly changing, so decision made and information collected quickly gets out of date.

At the same time, the policy agency will have responsibility for implementing decisions that have already been made. All this activity will put the policymaking process under serious pressure. It may be possible to bring in extra staff to help, but they often won't have the expertise needed to prepare good advice.

It seems fairly obvious that MBIE and the Ministry of Health have struggled with the task of providing timely and clear advice to the government about the management of Covid. That is not surprising given the number of decisions that have needed to be made and implemented. They have also struggled to implement decisions quickly and clearly, but that is not surprising given the pressure that they are working under.

Difficult Task
I don't envy Jacinda Ardern. She and her Cabinet are having to make decisions at a pace that they have never experienced before, and nothing could have prepared them for it. The range and difficulty of the decisions that have to be made are immense. Being responsible for the welfare and health of a nation is a huge burden to carry.

I did not vote for Jacinda Ardern. I don't believe in democracy and have not voted for many years, but I understand that most New Zealanders do believe in democracy and want a Prime Minister and government to lead the nation. Given that she was elected by a process that New Zealanders support, so they should cut her a little slack, given the immense difficulty of the task that she is trying to do.

The Labour government was elected with the biggest majority in the past twenty years, partly because they promised to deal with Covid in a conservative and careful way. They promised to put safety ahead of profit-making, so they cannot be faulted for doing that now.

I don’t agree with every decision that the government has made, but I am not sure that anyone else could have done any better. And of course, the good decisions are quickly forgotten as they become part of the new normal, while the bad decisions are remembered.

I find the vitriolic tone of much of the hostility to Jacinda Ardern quite disturbing, especially when it comes from Christians, who are supposed to honour their rulers (1 Peter 2:17). Some of her Christian critics seem to have become quite ugly in the way they speak. I can't help wonder how much of it comes from her being a woman (a relatively young one) given that many of her Christian critics have grown up under complementarian teaching that women should submit to men.

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