At the unveiling of the new Service Chiefs on 27th January, 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari spoke of how challenging it had been for his administration to deliver on promises made way back in 2015 when it came to power. Here are his words to the new military top brass, as issued by Presidential Spokesperson, Femi Adesina: “we promised to secure the country, revive the economy, and fight corruption. None has been easy.”
The uncharacteristic candor with which the President admitted to rough patches in the efforts to advance his administration’s priority policy agenda revealed a refreshing humility and self effacement that apparently had been suppressed for far too long. It also revealed an acute self awareness about the size and complexity of the challenges facing the country, as well as the limits of what a government can or cannot do to ameliorate a bad situation. This was breathtaking stuff by the President, perhaps matched only by years of exaggerated and often conflicting assessments of the same problems by aides who often conflate fancy sound bites with policy success.
Governments everywhere like to project competence at governing, a justifiable motivation since governments are judged by the scope and quality of services delivered. Indeed, the more grandiose the win, the bigger the bragging rights; which is why the default public policy goal has been to eradicate or defeat all problems, big and small. However, a desire to accomplish great things can all too often lead to exaggerated claims of success, as with public officials who had routinely declared Boko Haram “technically defeated,” only to be embarrassed when the terrorist group rises from the dead like a phoenix.
The motivation to score big policy wins and secure electoral advantage is a legitimate political strategy. Not only the Buhari government, but successor administrations had pledged and worked hard, sometimes too hard, to defeat terrorism, corruption, and eradicate poverty and every other social ill of the moment. Just as “none has been easy” for President Buhari’s administration to solve, previous governments came, did their time and left these same problems largely unsolved, sometime worse than they met them, not for lack of trying, but largely because of a misalignment between the policy goal and objective assessment criteria.
When you set out to defeat terrorism, for instance, any policy outcome short of the complete annihilation of the terrorists would be judged a defeat, and rightly so. The same is true of corruption and other social ills ravaging the country. From a policy standpoint, when the goal is to defeat Boko Haram, you are hard pressed to claim victory as long as there are scattered terrorist activities in parts of the country. It must be understood that no society can defeat terrorism, so there is nothing smart about a policy that aims to defeat the scourge but which will ultimately come short.
There is a different way for governments to frame societal problems and policy goals in ways that would free public officials from a self-imposed performance trap, the sort that forced President Buhari to admit that his administration had not found it easy keeping its electoral promises. In The Character of Harms, Malcolm K. Sparrow, Harvard Kennedy School scholar, makes the case that, rather than be fixated with eradicating problems, governments might aim simply to control or mitigate social problems, or “harms” as he calls them. Harms can range from anything from insecurity, banditry, violent crime, terrorism to corruption and poverty. Sparrow demonstrates that an explicit focus on mitigating “harms,” threats or risks can provide rich opportunities for efficient and effective interventions. He calls this approach to public policy “the sabotage of harms,” literally meaning preventing social ills from growing to toxic levels.
Of course, governments must have ambition and set high targets, but all too often, perfection can be the enemy of the good. Policy success is no less socially transforming because it comes in small, incremental doses. Indeed, much of the work that governments do involves the control or mitigation of harms, not the construction of utopias where all ills have been eradicated. It’s an approach the United Nations has perfected, in which amelioration or mitigation forms the building blocks of resolution over the long term. According to the United Nation’s Millennium Declaration, much of the urgent global agenda consists of harms insufficiently controlled – terrorism, transnational crime, human trafficking, money laundering, HIV/Aids, the persistence of extreme poverty, amongst others.
If the mitigation of “harms” is as effective as the United Nations and Sparrow suggest, a counterterrorism policy goal, for instance, might be framed simply as targeting improved public safety. Likewise, it would suffice to frame the anti corruption efforts as the promotion of public integrity, instead of a “war to defeat corruption.” The idea that “if we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill us” is simply a fancy hyperbole that does little to combat the menace other than to overstate the threat and make everyone, including the innocent, feel the burden of guilt.
Finally, a risk mitigation approach to public policy will free government officials from the lexicographic trap of proclaiming the “technical defeat” of a social problem, like the Boko Haram menace, only to be confronted by a much more deadly reincarnation of the old problem. In the end, the strategic goal of public policy should be to mitigate threats and risks, to “sabotage harms,” so that citizens can go about their daily lives with minimum disruption.
Dr. Awanen writes from Abuja