Informational Pathologies Of Policy Making

In their book, "The Pathology of Public Policy", Hogwood and Peters (1985:63-86) developed the metaphor first used by Deutsch (1963) in his book "The Nerves of Government" and outlined what they saw as the pathological features which processes of information collection by governments can exhibit. These provided a tidy summary of the problems that information policy should address and with which the very process of information policy formulation will be stricken. This medical metaphor becomes particularly appropriate if we take a systems approach to organization whether at the level of the individual, the society or government.

Faulty Receptors: More often than not, government becomes aware of problems too late to act upon them in the optimal way. While the feeling of the general public may be that the government does not wish to have this information because it does not wish to act, this is the situation which exists, whatever the reason, and it must be addressed by the information policy. The failure to design aggressive information collection procedures in advance leads to inadequate information, or more than adequate disinformation or an overload of undigested information, being available when problems reach a head.

Failures in Communicating Information to Decision Makers: Much of the information that is in fact collected never reaches the parts of the organization which would find it useful, either because these parts and even the hosts of the information are not aware of the existence of the information or it is not in a format which is readily accessible.

Lack of a Unitary Brain in the Policy Process: There is a high degree of sectorization throughout government departments and this results in unsatisfactory decision-making. It is only when there is a conflict of a clear-cut kind that integrative decision-making mechanisms tend to come into play and when they need to get a particular issue off the agenda.

Faulty Nerve Signals to Muscles: Decisions are not self-implementing. They have to be communicated in operationable form to those who will be responsible for carrying out the necessary tasks. There is no system in place to ensure that decisions will be implemented in the way that they were intended, if they are in fact implemented. There is faulty flow between the decision-makers and implementors and information failures in reaching policy targets.

Learning Disabilities: The ability to secure feedback about the effects of policies is crucial to the whole operation of delivering effective policies over time. It is only through feedback that the organization can learn how its policies are affecting society and whether these should be continued, altered or terminated.

Failures of Memory: Devising means of ensuring access to policy-relevant information about the past is particularly difficult. Even in cases where an organization is considering a policy parallel to one it has operated in the past, memory will fail completely. Such failures lead to duplication of effort and repetition of mistakes because appropriate lessons from the past are not drawn and/or not remembered.

There is either a lack of recognition, or a deliberate refusal to respond to the need to search for records of possible relevant experience. Hogwood and Peters (1985: 84) see this problem being compounded by the fact that raw data from the past may be available in a format that is not readily accessible, for example, it may not have been summarized. Finally they list another type of memory failure as the failure to recognize that there is a memory. Very often policy-makers set out with an artificial tabula rasa hoping to start all over again for the first time.

There is a bottomless pit into which time and money and patience and countless resources disappear without a trace or requiem . I call it the graveyard of reinvented wheels.

DEUTSCH, Karl Wolfgang (1963). The nerves of government. N.Y. : Free Press.
HOGWOOD, Brian W. & PETERS, b. Guy (1985). The pathology of public policy. Oxford: Clarendon.

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