What is the role of government?
Conservatives and liberals spend quite a bit of time arguing about this question. Even when they agree on a role the government is supposed to play, they often will argue about how the government is supposed to play that role.
While the ideological differences between the two parties can explain their varying perspectives on the role of government, the reality is that even those with the same ideology disagree on what they want government to do.
In the end, there are an unlimited number of problems we could choose to address and a limited number of resources to address them. As Harold Lasswell put it, politics is how we decide who gets what, when, and how.
Here is something that should bring conservatives and liberals together.
The policy process model taught in many public policy courses is a logical sequence of six steps that can be used to understand the development of public policies.
1. Agenda setting – Problems demand attention.
2. Policy formulation – Ways to address the problems are developed.
3. Policy legitimation – Policies are adopted by legislative bodies.
4. Policy implementation – Policies are implemented by governments.
5. Policy evaluation – The success and failure of policies is evaluated.
6. Policy change – Policies are changed or discontinued based on evaluation findings.
Unfortunately, when analyzing the development of public policies, it is not uncommon to find that the last two steps have gone undone. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, whether you want government to do more or do less, these last two steps should not be skipped.
It is through evaluation that we find out if a policy has been effective and efficient. Did it do what we wanted it to do and did it do it for a reasonable cost? Some policies and programs that are not working should be discontinued and others should be modified.
Deciding to stop a policy or program can be good news for conservatives and liberals. Conservatives will see a chance to shrink the size of government or limit its reach into our lives. Liberals will see a chance to reallocate resources to a problem they believe needs to be addressed.
In spite of this opportunity for unity, there are at least two reasons policies and programs do not get evaluated. One is that once a policy has been adopted, it can be argued that the problem has been addressed and it is time to take on another issue. The second is that steps five and six take up space on the agenda and there still is that limited number of resources to take on that unlimited number of problems.
Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
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