Technology, Policy, and Sustainability


These are the week 3 readings. After each reading, I’ve written some questions and notes for you to consider as you read the work and form your discussion points. I recommend that you keep on top of the readings, doing one each day rather than letting this rather significant reading load accumulate. However, discussion and the week 3 assignment are not “due” until 10 days after the end of Week 3 (on 13 June).
1. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 13 – “Risk” is another area where people don’t always seem to act rationally. If we think about “risk to our lives”, it would make sense for people to act in ways that reduce that risk as much as possible (or maybe as much as they can afford). But we have observed that people do not actually do this: the same person that is afraid to fly on a plane might zoom around all day on a motorcycle without a helmet. We have learned that there seem to be features of a risk that make it more or less acceptable to people. And this raises more important questions, like whether we ought to be making decisions that reduce actual risks or making decisions that reduce the risks that are most concerning to people.
Questions to think about: What do experts and laypeople mean when they talk about risk? Is one group right and the other one wrong or is this just an issue of communication? What properties of a risk affect a person’s judgment of its magnitude? Should policy focus on reducing mathematical risk, perceived risk, or some combination of both?

2. Keeney, “Understanding Life-Threatening Risks” – This reading talks about risk and value of life, saying (I think) a lot of interesting things about the logic and perception of risk. Note especially the occasional mis-match between the logic of risk facts and the perception of risk.
Questions to think about: Is it ethical to talk about the “value of life” and put numbers on it? Why? Do all lives have the same value of life? What about people in different countries – should there be any difference? What about statistical versus identifiable fatalities – should there be a difference here? Is misperception of risk a form of irrationality or does it represent a more complex way of thinking about risks? Is it ok for people to have preferences about the types of risk that they take on, or should we compel them to minimize total risk?

3. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 14 – This chapter is about “risk communication”, but the ideas here actually apply to all forms of communication to the public about complex topics. It starts with a simple but commonly misunderstood idea: the purpose of a good communication to the public (posters, emails, brochures, books, newscasts, etc) isn’t “to tell people a thing that they need to know”. Rather, the goal should be “to correct misunderstandings and tell them important things that they don’t already know”. The chapter also introduces a formal method that you can use to figure out what information fits that description.
Questions to think about: What is the goal of a good risk communication strategy? How should you decide what goes into a risk communication? What is the benefit of structured interviews? Do the lesson about risk communication here apply to communication about other topics?

4. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 15 – We often act as if big organizations (governments, companies) make decisions the same way that individuals do. We say things like, “Why would the government decide to do that?”, which implies that the “government” is an entity that thinks about problems and makes choices the same way that we do. But a government is a big complicated system. Sure there is a person at the top that seems to be making decisions, but that person’s decisions are the result of the information they get from subordinates and the options that are presented, both of which are filtered and affected by the whole organization. Sometimes the “decisions” of big organizations don’t seem to make any sense, and there is a whole literature dedicated to understand how these organizations actually make decisions.
Questions to think about: How is an “organization” different from an individual? Are organizations rational, and if so in what ways are they rational? Why did Allison develop these three Models of decision making – why not just one? What is the Cyert and March idea of how a firm works and how is it different from a “rational” model? The chapter supplies a large variety of theories and models of how organizations “make decisions” or “operate” – which of these do you find to be most correct or incorrect? Are they all correct in different ways? What does all of this have to do with policy design?

5. Theory and Practice in Policy Analysis, Chapter 16 – How does policy get made? A simple answer would be something like this: the government sees a problem, considers some options to fix it, and then chooses a best solution. But anyone who has worked in government for very long knows that this isn’t the whole story. Governments only have a limited amount of attention and must focus on certain pressing issues – you can’t solves everything, or at least not all at once. And governments oftentimes don’t know exactly what to do: a lot of the problems that governments face are very complex (poverty, urban design, education, etc) and don’t have a clear and simple solution. This chapter is similar to the last one, but focused on a description of the policy process rather than how organizations behave.
Questions to think about: What do you think of the Kingdon model of the policy process? Does it apply in Dubai/UAE? What about “muddling through” – does that sound correct? In general, do these models apply in Dubai – why or why not?

6. Kingdon, excerpt from “Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies” – This is a famous reading about the policy process and how action is taken. A naïve model of decisions from governments (or other large organizations) would suggest that they look at an issue, consider all possible solutions, and then pick the one that has the highest expected benefit. However, this hardly seems to reflect the way governments actually take action. Kingdon introduced the “three streams” model here, which includes useful concepts like the “policy window” and “policy entrepreneur”.
Questions to think about: What is the importance of agendas here? What are the three streams and how are they related to policy formation? If Kingdon is correct here, should we expect this process to get us to the best outcome? A good outcome? What types of outcomes does it favor? Does all of this sound right to you or do you have criticisms of the concepts?

Week 3 Assignment (1-2 pages, single spaced):
In this week, a main theme is the complexity of real-life decision-making and the policy process. Please write 1-2 pages about how we can/should ensure that the results of our analysis can be most useful for decisionmakers. Make sure to relate your ideas here back to the readings.
Some relevant questions (you aren’t required to answer all of these, but probably should be answering some of them): What guidelines should we follow for how to present material to decisionmakers? If we believe that the policy process is somewhat as Kingdon describes, what role does good analysis have in that process? Should policy analysis be more like science and avoid value judgments? If so, how do we ensure that it is useful and relevant? How should we integrate “policy analysis” into government decision making? What role should it serve? Can/should policy analysis tell is what we “ought” to be doing?

Sample Solution