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On ignorance, tweets, and outliers — and what public policy is really all about

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Ignorant, uninformed tweets dominating a nation's newsfeeds are a problem, but they are also a symptom.

Before we talk about ignorance, tweets, and outliers, let’s talk about public policy.

Keith Luebke

It is early April in a northern state. The last snow before the arrival of spring is slowing down the morning commutes and schools are closed.

A young girl with her school backpack is wandering home in the snow. Her parent, preoccupied with complicated work schedules, doesn’t know school is canceled. The young girl wanders home to a day by herself.

Now, let’s talk public policy.

How many young children are wandering home in the snow? How many will find an adult waiting for them when they get there? If there is no adult, do they have access to a key so they can get out of the cold? Does the child have a cellphone or alternative method to contact an adult? Was there a school-based program for the young girl, and she simply slipped out for reasons of her own?

So many questions – but all of them are important questions.

Responding to issues and problems

Public policy is about government responding to issues and problems. A nation with few schools should focus on universal access to education. A nation with universal education should consider issues of equity – does each student have equal educational opportunities and access? And what about a particularly young student wandering down the sidewalk on a snowy morning as she leaves school?

We’ll get back to the young girl, but, first, how does government respond to issues and problems when there are so many of them? And what is our capacity to respond with public policy solutions?

Wise public policy people turn to whatever data exists. In some states with a reasonable tax base, there will be a special program for children with no access to needed child care on an unexpected snow holiday. The number of students in need of this community response is the original stimulus for creating such programs. Other states will lack the means to implement a program requiring such an expenditure of scarce resources. They might rely on a formal or informal network of parents, teachers, or a local nonprofit organization to devise a solution addressing the problem.

In each case, public policy makers considered the problem. Sometimes, the solution comes through legislation. Sometimes, the problem is approached at the local level — by an individual school or school district. Public policy processes run through every level of governance, and it is ongoing.

The more involvement, the better

Public policy solutions vary according to many factors. First, there is the number of people concerned about public policy and government responses to social and environmental needs. The more involvement, the better. But there is an important question related to this: Is public policy woven into the fabric of governance? City planning, for example, is entrenched in some states (particularly in the North), but hardly exists in others (parts of the South, for example).

Another key factor is the tax base. Public policy solutions hardly matter when there are no resources to respond to the problem. Taxes and other revenue vary from state to state (and from nation to nation) and from school district to school district. A community in rural Oregon will respond differently from a school in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.

So this is an important point: Public policy is not only about solving problems, it is also a way of life. Good public policy solutions are rooted in sound data and a compassionate civic infrastructure. That is one way of saying people concerned about their community are at the heart of good public policy. Importantly, good public policy prioritizes needs. When there are many young students wandering home in the snow to uncertain circumstances, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. When there is only one child wandering home because she skipped out of the school program designed to serve her needs, a public policy response is less likely. She is an outlier.

Outliers need attention, but their primary need is to live in a society that continues to build its capacity to work through smaller and smaller issues and problems. Respond first to the needs with the broadest public good and desired outcomes. Then work your way down the list.

This is the strength of sound public policies. They address specific needs and problems, they prioritize needs, they assess all resource options, they evolve as needs evolve, and they always seek relevant information and support. Sound public policy responses are rooted in healthy civil societies. Civil society, in turn, is rooted in compassionate and reasonable citizens coming together to make decisions that benefit the public.

When the focus is on outliers or false premises

Nothing upsets public policy more than a focus on outliers or false premises. If people in public life rant about welfare queens when the real issue is how best to assist families in need, you have a problem. If people in public life rant about voter fraud when there is no significant voter fraud, you have a problem. If tax cuts are the topic of every public policy conversation, you have a problem. If some buffoon in high public office tweets constantly about outliers and issues outside of the most pressing public policy issues and concerns, you have a problem.

Ignorant, uninformed tweets dominating a nation’s newsfeeds are a problem, but they are also a symptom. A hostile tweet as a substitute for a public policy proposal normally has no significance. There are too many of them to care. But hostile tweets from the Oval Office are a symptom of a fracturing civil society.

There are important questions for those concerned about a healthy civil society rooted in inclusion and democratic processes. What have you done? How have you been productively involved in public policy issues? Do you prepare and educate yourself for participation in public life? What do you contribute to solving the most pressing and highly prioritized issues in your community? If you are involved, what have you done to broaden community participation in solving needs and problems?

It may not seem fair to make these demands on poor families in tenuous circumstances, but democracy is a demanding system of governance. Making exceptions will always lead to problems. And we already have too many problems related to lack of inclusion.

Vicious tweets receiving almost daily headlines are certainly a problem. But these tweets also remind us that we’ve neglected many people in our community for far too long. We did not bring them into the world of public policy, and we certainly did not help them to understand how crucial these processes are in a democracy. Our past failures left far too many adrift in a harsh economic environment, open to simple solutions that are hostile to democratic processes.

It’s very hard work

Public policy is fragile. Democracy is fragile. To move them both into a safer space is very hard work. And when things don’t seem to be going well, it means you have to work harder. That is one reason the alternatives to democratic processes become compelling to so many citizens.

Worrying about children wandering in the snow is a start. But public policy is at the heart of what America is about. The realm of public policy is where we balance freedom and justice within the process of making community decisions. Cumulatively, these decisions create a better world for our children.

In the United States, good public policy processes gave us schools, roads, Social Security, Head Start, libraries, an abundance of flush toilets, and much more. Anyone who has experienced or studied developing economies knows how lucky we are.

Our social infrastructure and abundant opportunities have drawn many people to the United States over many generations and we are only richer for it. But it has never been easy, and we are never done.

Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/07/2018 - 08:07 am.

    It is a country where we have swallowed the three poisons and are led by the epitome of them…

    ….The Wheel of Life stems from the Tibetan tradition and is a complex representation of the constant circle of life, death and rebirth. The hub of any wheel is the part around which everything else revolves, In the hub of this well known Buddhist icon are three creatures, each biting the other’s tail, spinning round and round in a never ending circle. A cockerel, snake and a pig represent what are often referred to as The Three Poisons. The cockerel is greed, the snake is hatred and the pig delusion. Each one is driven in pursuit of the creature in front, but at the same time is being consumed by the one that follows. The Three Poisons are the root causes of all suffering. Everything that causes us dissatisfaction, pain or outright suffering stems from one of these three elements…

    The answer–equality, compassion and wisdom.

    You provide a very good practical reading of the answer and what a good government should do.

  2. Submitted by Sandra Marks on 04/07/2018 - 09:19 am.

    Thanks, Keith…

    Public policy IS a way of life. Minnesota has what it has, in part, because of the strong Scandinavian and Lutheran influence on its communities and a willingness to pay a few extra taxes to help others. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

    • Submitted by Keith Luebke on 04/07/2018 - 03:00 pm.

      Church basements

      I worked in nonprofit housing for years, and spent so much time in church basements – that is where Minnesotans went to discuss and address homelessness during the farm crisis of the 1980s and since. That’s where many of the programs still providing temporary and transitional housing got their start.

      That reminds me of another unsolved issue familiar to people who spend a lot of time fixing the world’s problems from church basements. We desperately need more comfortable folding chairs!


  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/07/2018 - 10:48 am.

    Thanks for reminding us of our collective duty to protect our democracy, with this explanation of public policy and our role in it. How nice to have a voice of sanity and compassion.

  4. Submitted by Keith Luebke on 04/07/2018 - 03:18 pm.

    Especially important now

    I’m not being alarmist, but we need to remind people of the basics. Public Policy 101 is barely in the picture these days – in Washington D.C. and too many states. Many of the most hopeful signs of public participation in policy discussions are coming from the local and regional level. Too many people are focused on this 24/7 news machine – they need to spend more time meeting locally and building their knowledge of how the process works and how to translate local solutions into worthwhile and enabling legislation.

    Then, when necessary, you come back a year or two later and tweak the legislation based on what you’ve learned.

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Submitted by Linda Hildebrant on 04/07/2018 - 05:06 pm.

    Informed and compasionate public policy

    Thank you for a clear and informative primer on developing sound public policy to solve problems and address/meet the needs of citizens and communities. Also appreciate your warning of the fragility of public policy and democracy and the need to protect them against those voices using false premises, misleading data and outliers as barriers to enhancing communication and cooperation. In one of your responses in the comments you mention the need for people to spend more time meeting locally and building knowledge of how the process works and mention spending time in church basements — I belong to a church that would love to invite you to speak — is it possible to contact you about the possibility of that?

  6. Submitted by Keith Luebke on 04/07/2018 - 08:47 pm.

    Of course …

    Susan Albright, Managing Editor at MinnPost has my contact info. We can connect through her.


  7. Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 04/08/2018 - 09:03 am.

    Who Knew

    that good schools, good roads and safe communities depended on involved citizens coming together to solve common problems — or that those solutions sometimes required levying fair taxes?

    It’s not particularly complicated, but a pretty revolutionary concept for those in the “ME” generation, who have been told constantly that they are entitled to the good things in life, and that once they have theirs, others can fend for themselves.

    • Submitted by Keith Luebke on 04/08/2018 - 10:41 am.

      Pretty basic

      At this point in time, we need to review the basics. The good society is rooted in good conversations.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 04/09/2018 - 10:36 am.

      I don’t know which generation

      you’re denominating as the “ME” generation, but I don’t think the problem demographic is classified by age interval, it’s those who have been, and are being, manipulated on the basis of their fears, and who can’t – or won’t – think critically to recognize that they are being manipulated.

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