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July 08, 2006


Some Points to Ponder During Messy Ecological Policy Wars
Dave

Robert T. Lackey published nine Axioms of Ecological Policy [PDF] in the June issue of Fisheries, the journal of the American Fisheries Society. Lackey's axioms are insightful, and ring particularly true to those of us who have spent our adult lives tangled up in ecological policy wars. Here they are, in brief:

Axioms of Ecological Policy
  1. The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game. [... "The search for a "win-win" choice...is hopeless.... There are always winners and losers..."]
  2. The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs.
  3. The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population.
  4. Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making.
  5. Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences.
  6. Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive.
  7. Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments.
  8. If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making.
  9. The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.
Lackey frames "messy" ecological policy as follows:
Many of today's are politically contentious, socially wrenching, and replete with scientific uncertainty. They are often described as wicked, messy, policy problems, (e.g. reversing the decline of Salmon, deciding on the proper role of wild fire on public lands; what to do, if anything, about climate change; worries about the consequences of declining biological diversity; making sense of the confusing policy choices surrounding notions of sustainability).

Wicked, messy, ecological policy problems share several qualities:

  1. complexity—innumerable options and tradeoffs;
  2. polarization—clashes between competing values;
  3. winners and losers—for each policy choice some will clearly benefit, some will be harmed, and the consequences for others is uncertain;
  4. delayed consequences—no immediate "fix," and the benefits, if any, of painful concessions will often not be evident for decades;
  5. decision distortion—advocates often appeal to strongly held values and distort or hide the real policy choices and their consequences.
  6. national vs. regional conflict—national or (international) priorities often differ substantially from those at the local or regional level; and
  7. ambiguous role for science—science is often not pivotal in evaluating policy options, but science often ends up serving inappropriately as a surrogate for debates over values and preferences.
As if they are not messy enough, ecological policy issues may become further clouded by skepticism about the independence of scientists and scientific information. Much of the available science is tendered by government agencies, corporations, and public and private organizations, as well as myriad public and private interest and advocacy groups. Each arguably has a vested interest in the outcome of the debate and often promulgates "science" that supports its favored position. …
If you enjoy Lackey's sampler, here are a few suggested readings:
  • A Primer on Decision-Making: How Decisions Happen. James G. March. 1994.
  • Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Deborah Stone. 2001 (Revised Edition).
  • System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. Robert Jervis. 1997.
  • Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. J. Edward Russo and Paul H. Schoemaker. 1989.
  • The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. Dietrich Dörner. 1996.
And for more from Robert Lackey, try these:

July 10 Update:
Lackey did an admirable job of stating his nine axioms, but I feel inclined to edit and embellish them a bit. Something like:

  1. The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game. [... "The search for a "win-win" choice...is hopeless.... There are always winners and losers..."]
  2. The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs. {Efficiency should be addressed in designing alternatives—alternatives should be designed to be efficient, to do what they are intended to do without apparent waste—leaving the choice among alternatives to be based on other factors, including "distribution."}
  3. The most politically viable policy choice appears to spread the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population. {Of course Machiavellian players will try to narrow the benefits to their preferred constituents while maintaining the appearance of broad distribution, and simultaneously distribute the cost to those disfavored, else distribute the costs generally so as to give the appearance of fairness.}
  4. Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making and often used as important targets in political smear campaigns by Machiavellian players.
  5. Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences. {Including government agencies, polticians, interest groups, ...}
  6. Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive. {Almost never, by the by, is there "complete and accurate scientific information" in ecological policy disputes.)
  7. Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments.
  8. If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making. {The analytical game played by many agencies, despite valiant attempts otherwise by well-meaning analysts, is to mask true value choices as choices varying in degrees of efficiency, thereby distracting participants into policy backwaters and eddies.}
  9. The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.

Posted by Dave on July 8, 2006 at 03:10 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Posted by: Mike Dechter

As a NEPA coordinator charged with applying the 'best available science' to project planning and for preparing and presenting analytical information, this posting was especially depressing. If Lackey is correct, then our rules and policies seem to stand us up tall, only to increase our own vulnerability of getting cut down at the knees. Of course, the other option of demonizing oponents and limiting impacts to minority populations isn't much good of an alternative either.

After reading Lackey's axioms, I'm not sure whether to exclamate a audible 'duh' and get back to work, or start looking for another job somewhere back in DC where there are fewer illusions regarding the usefulness of science vs. sounbites in ecological policy and politics.

Mike Dechter | Jul 10, 2006 12:42:17 PM


Posted by: Dave

Hey Mike,

Nice to hear from you. After a few mis-steps I have updated the Lackey post to include my even-more-depressing "take" on the politics at work in our systems. Lemee know whether I (or Lackey) push you off the deep end. Of course, if you fall off that "deep end," we'll probably never hear from you again.. "So it goes," as my favorite Sci Fi author/political commentator Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is prone to say.. :) d.

Dave | Jul 10, 2006 2:48:39 PM


Posted by: Anthony Scardina

I must say that I view Lackey's axioms, as well as Dave's edits, as accurate from the research I have done in the past in this area, as well as my experiences in the field. It is probably best that most people are not aware of these!!!!

Anthony Scardina | Oct 4, 2006 4:57:44 PM


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