On Intent and Implementation in Public Policies
Why saying "Good idea, bad implementation" about government policies is stupid Last week marked the seventh anniversary of demonetisation , an Indian economic policy that, in 2016, devalued nearly 99% of banknotes in circulation, caused untold hardships to citizens and gig workers, and forced a premature adoption of digital payments in India. One of my favorite thinkers, Amit Varma, has called it “ the largest attack on property rights in modern India ”. And yet, years after the disastrous results have been well-documented and after even the RBI’s declaration that demonetisation did little to curb black money, it is still hailed as a “masterstroke” that was ridden with “poor implementation".” It all has to do with perception - the government sold the idea as a way to eliminate black money in India , by allegedly wiping out the “hordes of cash tucked away in briefcases, bank lockers, and mattresses” in bungalows and mansions across the country. In a country where being wealthy was seen as illicitly gained and inherently evil, this went a long way toward garnering support from the general public. “We may have it hard, but at least the illicitly rich people will have it harder,” was a common refrain from vox pops across the country. Even the ghastly inconvenience of having to stand in long queues for hours on end to withdraw one’s own hard-earned money did not dent the average citizen’s support for the decision. Even among the educated middle class, there was one common opinion that seemed to be parroted again and again. “Demonetisation was a good idea, but it could’ve been implemented better ” This seems to be a common refrain among citizens today, doesn’t it? Whenever a government policy is introduced and we are inconvenienced, we tend to fall back on this excuse to let the government off the hook - or criticize it completely as a bad idea. To be honest, you can replace demonetization with ANY government policy that the average voter supports and you will find this is the same excus e people use to give a free pass for poorly planned government policies across the country - state or Centre. Take your pick from recent government policies across India - The odd-even rule in Delhi to curb pollution (which hasn’t curbed pollution ); Prohibition in dry states to curb liqour consumption ( which hasn’t curbed alcohol addiction, only worsened it ); Even the ban on pornographic websites ( guess which country is No.3 in online porn consumption *wink wink *). All of these are touted as examples of “good policies that are poorly implemented,” according to the public. If only the poor government got support from the public, right? If only the useless bureaucrats would stop hampering the government’s well-intentioned policies, right? Here’s why that sort of thinking is stupid and should not be encouraged. First, policies cannot be measured by “intentions” alone . Hardly any government comes up with a plan or policy that has “evil” intentions behind it. Any working policy presented in the public domain is necessarily well-meaning. For the government to do otherwise is against the principles it was voted in for. However, what use is good intentions with shoddy implementation? Unlike in school, where math teachers used to give students marks for correct steps taken to solve an equation, there are no step marks in real life. You can’t say “I sincerely wanted to solve the problem, but I wasn’t able to - so give me full marks.” Good intentions don’t always translate into good results. Second, any policy that does not include a plan on how it will be implemented is not a good policy . The government is a sprawling machine that absolutely HAS TO consider how it is going to deliver services to its citizens - through officials, bureaucrats, social engineering, etc. Anyone can sit in an armchair and think up a policy. However, governments are voted in to figure out exactly how these ideas can be implemented. It is literally their job to go that extra mile. In their brilliant book Missing In Action: Why You Should Care About Public Policy , authors Pranay Kotasthane & Raghu Jaitley write: By blaming implementation alone, we are letting governments off the hook easily. The government has the resources and expertise at its command to anticipate at least some of the implementation challenges, stakeholder attitudes, and unintended consequences. Hence, we need to hold the government to higher standards when evaluating policies. A policy that has good intentions but bad implementation is just plain lazy governance. A policy with bad intentions but good implementation is not a policy - it’s a scam. So the next time someone supports a poorly thought government policy by saying “good idea, bad implementation,” slap them across the face and then ask them to read this post. NB: This post is the first in a series about how citizens navigate the relationship between themselves, a.k.a society , the state (a.k.a the government), and the market (companies).