berthahenson

Keep politics out by keeping policies simple

In News Reports on May 30, 2014 at 4:12 am

From reading the dispersed parliamentary reports in MSM, I think it was MP Baey Yam Keng who made the most interesting speech yesterday. Now, we’ve heard enough about this word called “trust’’ – the erosion, lack of and how to raise levels and all that.

A lot of it are exhortations to the G (and its civil servants) to do better at emphatising with the lot of the common man, by climbing out of ivory towers and putting their ear to the ground. Then there is the flip side: That trust is eroded because of distortions, untruths and a whole lot of drumming – so can everyone just get their facts right?

But I think Mr Baey hit the nail on the head when he talked about better communications and more importantly, HOW to engage in it. The former public relations practitioner talked about making sure policies are in tune with human behaviour and psychology, rather than micro-calibrated to ensure maximum mileage and minimum wastage. He said, for example, it required 16 spreadsheets to explain the different ERP charges here, while London’s Congestion Charge was a flat ten pounds.

Likewise, the initial euphoria over the Pioneer Generation Package appears to have dissipated because of its intricacies which even those tasked to explain find difficult to articulate.

According to ST, he gave this example:

The Pioneer package subsidises MediShield Life premiums and tops up Medisave accounts but this may not be used by healthy seniors.

Instead, the package could have given pioneers free treatment for common chronic diseases in Class C or B2 wards, he said.

This might cost the Government the same as what the actual package did, but would better reassure the 450,000 pioneer Singaporeans as it is easier to understand.

I think the package was done that way to be “fair’’ – so whether you have chronic illness or not, everyone still gets a top-up.  Also, it looks “better’’ than a direct handout, like free treatment for seniors. Good points, but they also make it “difficult’’ for people to grasp what the G is trying to do.

Or take the CPF system. So many conditions and caveats, different withdrawal sums and uses, different accounts and interest rates  – how can anyone truly grasp what the policy is about or remember every step of what will happen to your CPF once you hit 55? Try reading about CPF Life and see if you can figure out how it will apply to you.      

Thing is, policies have become mightily complicated. They start with a sound objective and then other objectives are later grafted on to them. Then it is engineered such that it is not open to abuse, even if the possibility is small.  Then it is criss-crossed with means testing and criteria to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake according to, say, household type, age group, monthly income, ward class ecetera. Then it is criss-crossed again by how much to give out, for what purpose, time period and so forth.   

It’s just like taxi fares! So many levies, time slots and varying starting charges by different companies that the only thing people remember is “don’t take the big black cab because it is definitely more expensive’’. But, hey, that’s the private sector and we are mere consumers who have to abide by caveat emptor.

But with G policies, it’s different. I reckon there is mistrust when policies become complicated because:

  1. People think the G isn’t really serious about “giving’’ because it is making it so hard for people to do the “taking’’.
  2. People will start looking at other people who also benefit from the policy and wonder if they have been given a fair shake, or whether some discriminatory standards have been applied. In other words, why him and not me?
  3. People who can’t understand one point will seldom bother to find out about it themselves, preferring that others – who can be less reliable – tell them. Remember that most people only read headlines – which might also not be reliable!  
  4. People will add more objectives to policies simply because the policies already have so many – and therefore can afford to have more. The G will have hands full explaining why it can’t do that.

 When policies are so complicated, why is anyone surprised that there is so much misinformation about them? Even The Straits Times can’t explain the Wage Credit Scheme properly (see earlier post). And consultancies have sprouted up to dispense advice on how to use the Productive and Innovation Credit more productively and even innovatively.   

 It’s easy enough to say that people should check their facts before mouthing off. Yes, they should but not everyone can do this, and some might even not be inclined to. We haven’t reached that level of sophistication and even fluency when we can debate effectively with facts at our fingertips although some of us try to.

I happen to think it is good politics to simply try and ensure that policies CAN’T be misunderstood in the first place.  Make it simple.  In fact, make it somewhat “intuitive’’ as well. I would like to add that I am also guilty of asking for more checks and so forth on G policy especially on subsidies and handouts. I wonder especially about the WCS and other grants that don’t seem to have factored in an element of accountability on the part of the receiver.

So the G has to make a call – keep things simple and stand its ground when others lobby for more – or less or risk doing a patch up job and then unravelling everything and going back to basics.

I acknowledge that this will be a tough job.

This is just my one cent worth of opinion in the name of constructive politics.    

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  1. Complexity is a funny thing. I think civil servants believe that if they create a simple system, they will be regarded as not having earned their salaries.

    As for trust. The bureaucracy hasn’t smelt it for years. Every policy for which it has to craft the language will have – no, must have – some provisions to “guard against abuse”.

    They are right to be fearful, I suppose, given the myriad of ways in which dealers in secondhand vehicles managed to outwit the manifold delights of the COE system in it’s infancy.

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