Understanding & Evaluating Issues
Issues are like onions ... what often seems plain and straightforward on the outside quickly becomes more complex as you penetrate the surface and peel the layers back. Here are some basic things to consider when examining issues, evaluating solutions, and assessing a policy or position:
Identify the REAL Problem
Identifying and defining problems correctly is at the core of crafting effective policies and implementing sound solutions. Aside from identifying problems, policymakers also need to expose and challenge any assumptions they might have in dealing with a given situation.
As a layperson, when you're assessing issues and evaluating a proposed solution, ask yourself if the politicians behind it: 1) have identified the problem correctly, and 2) are working neutrally to solve it (or are they instead using it as a means to to push a larger agenda.)
Here is a very helpful article from Litemind that does a deeper dive into identifying and deconstructing problems (so even if the politicians and policy makers aren't thinking pragmatically, YOU can. )
Determine the Root Cause
It is common to look at a situation and assume the causation behind it, but things are frequently more complex than they appear on the surface. Homelessness is one example -- is it lack of affordable housing? Substance abuse? Mental health? Or a tangled mix of several factors?
While Occam's Razor can at times be helpful in winnowing and paring down hypotheses, a deep dive into causation (as well as an open mind regarding possible solutions and outcomes) often proves far more fruitful. The adage 'correlation does not equal causation' is instrumental when striving to identify problems and ascertain their root causes.
(You can learn more about 'spurious correlations' at this fun website.)
Who is affected by the problem? Who is tasked with finding solutions to it? Who stands to gain from each possible solution? Who stands to lose? What does 'solving' the problem look like for each stakeholder? Here is a good article on stakeholder engagement for governmental entities, along with two worksheet templates for stakeholder identification and assessment: Worksheet #1 & Worksheet #2.
When problems arise, we want politicians and policy makers who will tackle them head on. One way to evaluate a politician's job performance is to keenly observe what solutions they look for (or which they ignore.)
Problems present possibilities. Someone who truly wants to solve problems will be open to at least contemplating multiple solutions. Channeling options down one path while limiting (or ignoring altogether) those down another path doesn't usually serve the best interests of the People to get the resolution we need (but it frequently DOES serve the POLITICIANS' interests in earning party credibility and brownie points in moving up the political career ladder.)
When evaluating issues, brainstorm possible solutions yourself, then introspectively ask why only certain options are on the table, and not others.
Sometimes solutions that appear good on the surface have the potential to beget other problems if implemented. We currently see this with solar panels, wind turbines, and EVs -- all of which have the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but potentially to also cause new problems in the realms of mining & sourcing, landfill disposal, and toxic waste.
This is not to say we should ignore 'green' solutions or technology, but simply that decision-makers and politicians should absolutely think strategically and long-term. For example, if there will be subsidies for EVs (which are currently quite expensive), what is the plan for battery replacement and disposal in eight years?
Pragmatic and EFFECTIVE solutions require over-the-horizon thinking (and penciling future-dollar expenses into budgetary consideration today, so that politicians and policy makers actually solve problems, not simply kick the can down the road for the next office-holder to worry about.)
This includes not only current costs, but projected costs for sustainability. As mentioned in the previous EV scenario, calculating the 'cost' of subsidies SHOULD also include at least one replacement battery (because presently, a typical EV battery lasts around eight years.)
Designing a program to subsidize EVs for low-income earners -- only to leave them high and dry in eight years when they are unable to afford a replacement battery -- is not only short-sighted, but also cruel. Politicians need to enact policies that work for the long-term, not just for the four years they're in office.
Where does funding come from? Is it from a one-time source, or will it repeat year after year? What are the requirements to receive it [i.e. grants requiring documentation, or situations involving certain demographics or circumstances (like the Flint, MI water crisis.)]
Who is providing the money, and are there any strings attached? Money inherently breeds conflicts of interest -- from quid pro quo expectations (usually unuttered but potentially present none the less) to competitive bids or real estate deals - there is ample room for rampant abuse.
In the case of governments and their related institutions, the guiding standard must always be upholding the public interest.
Here is a great easy-read primer from Santa Clara University about conflicts of interest, part of which states:
It is not sufficient for government officials to make conflicts public. They must take themselves out of the decision-making process altogether.
Please take a moment to read the article, as well as the linked case studies at the bottom (under 'Resources on conflicts of interest and government ethics'.) They give you a very good idea why 'following the money' is so important in politics, and why things aren't always so black and white.
While it's tempting to sit back and consider the problem solved, the last critical step is to evaluate outcomes and effectiveness. Making time and expending effort to periodically assess what's working and what's not allows for quicker course adjustments, in order for problems to be detected before money and resources are thrown at what can turn out to be an ineffective or improper solution. [In government, that can lead to 'throwing good money after bad', where projects continue despite going far beyond original scope or budget. California's 'bullet train' comes to mind -- a project that is already years behind schedule and has doubled (and likely to grow) in cost.]