Public Policy Decision Making—Is Critical Thinking Dead? 
By Dan Monez, Retired Police Chief

  Making public policy is an important act.  It flows from a sacred public trust bestowed on a select few individuals. Public policy decisions affect thousands, even millions of people. However, it seems that many, if not most, public officials lack the critical thinking skills to exercise good public policy decision making.

 Public policy decisions are often the result of political pressure from special interests who wield real or perceived electoral power.  Sometimes they are the result of “political correctness” or fads.  Other times they are quid pro quo for support on a favored measure of the decision maker.  It is no wonder the old adage coined by Otto Von Bismark still rings true today, “Laws [public policies] are like sausage.  It is better not to have seen how either are made.”

 But what process should a public policy maker undertake when considering a new law, rule, policy, or procedure?  How can we make better “sausage”?

 I suggest the following five step process which is loosely taken from an ancient Samurai text called “The Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi.  I have tried to follow these five “rings” of thinking in my public life and have found that they have served me well. 

 Before I share the Five Rings, I must comment on another Samurai concept and that is the proper mindset to have in order to make good decisions.  I believe that the enemy of good decision making is arrogance.  Unfortunately, many elected and appointed public officials suffer from this disability.  Arrogance closes the mind to the possibility of gaining wisdom.  To think that your way is the only way because those with whom you surround yourself agree with you, is a path to certain failure.  The open mind is observant and empathetic and the proper mind for decision making.

 The five steps or “rings” to good decision making are these:

    1. Is it necessary and timely?
      • Is there a genuine need for this decision?  Is it needed now or can it wait? Is it ultimately useless or purely symbolic?
    2. Is it morally and ethically right?
      • Some decisions are tempting to make because they are popular or pragmatic. However, always check it against what you stand for, your previous promises & commitments. Is it consistent with your values and the values of what you represent?

 Is it based on or supported by sound science/facts?

      • Don’t accept everything on face value. Experts, consultants and others have biases and misconceptions just like everyone else. Do your own fact checking.  Don’t confuse opinion or preference with fact.  Apply the common sense test.
      • Check your own biases, maintain an open mind.
    1. Is it consistent with the prevailing policy, rule or law?
      • Almost all decisions in government are made in the context of some law, ordinance, plan, rule, precedent etc..  Is your decision consistent with these? 
    2. Have the harm and benefits been fully understood?
      • Every decision has harm and benefit to someone.  Think about unintended consequences and outcomes and whether they are worth the risk. 

 If public policy makers would just follow these five steps before rendering decisions, I believe we would have better public policy and a resulting better government.



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