Should Public Policy Lead or Follow Public Opinion?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China)
December 30, 2013
Summary: The government must listen to the public. But it must not blindly rely on public opinion. Public opinion is an indicator of society's sentiments. The government must respect it. But that does not mean allowing it to run amok. Public opinion is often fragmented. The government must exercise professionalism and impartiality in its decision making. It must sell the public. It must lead the public. It must not become an example of the blind leading the blind.
Full text below:
Beginning today, the freeways will be metered on a pay per kilometer basis. Under conflicting pressures from the public, the long and short distance rates and the free mileage allotment have been adjusted repeatedly. But the government has been unable to quell public discontent. Ilan residents object to tolls on the plains portion of National Toll Road Number 5. They persist in their protests. Electronic toll collection will reduce bottlenecks. This is a benefit of the information age. But public opinion remains divided. A progressive policy continues to falter. This is surprising.
The popularity of the Internet has enabled people to express their opinions. Government policies are constantly subject to public scrutiny. Diversity of opinion has made it impossible for the government to formulate policies that please everyone. In order to reduce criticism, the government tends to wait until the public has announced its preferences first. Respect for public opinion is a good thing. Nevertheless the government must make decisions concerning complex issues that require professionalism. If government policies merely regurgitate public opinion, the result will be confusion and chaos.
The referendum on Nuclear Power Plant Number 4 is a good example. A public referendum is the most direct expression of public opinion. It is an important way to resolve major controversies. The government has repeatedly attempted to hold referenda. But the referendum process and the wording of referenda merely provoke additional controversy. This makes it impossible for referenda to resolve problems. Take Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster for example. The Executive Yuan decided to respond to DPP appeals. It decided to support a referendum on whether to finish construction on the Nuclear Power Plant Number 4. But nearly a year later, the issue remains unresolved by any referendum. Instead, the ruling and opposition parties have become increasingly polarized. Social groups have become mired in irrational disputes. Obviously referenda are not a panacea for resolving major public policy disagreements.
Another way of determining whether the public approves of a government policy is opinion polls. Recently the Tourism Bureau Taipei Tourism Office said it would conduct a poll to decide whether it should use scientific methods to preserve Yehliu's famous "Queen's Head" rock formation. Proponents and opponents remain deadlocked. On one hand, the rock formation has tourism value. The public loves it. On the other hand, the environment must be protected and natural processes must be respected. The two camps have no common ground. The Taipei Tourism Office decision revealed its reluctance to offend either camp. But the real question is do opinion polls constitute an objective and accurate measure of public opinion? Would an opinion poll really lead to an informed decision?
Those who implement policy often use the following approach. Whenever a major policy controversy erupts, the government establishes an "ad hoc inter-agency task force." For example, suppose people complain about rising prices? The government establishes an "ad hoc price stability task force." Suppose people complain about food safety? The government establishes a "food safety task force." When Hung Chung-chiu was murdered, the government established an "ad hoc military human rights task force." When the documentary film "Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above" became popular, the government established an "ad hoc land conservation task force." The government invariably waits until public discontent boils over, before seriously tackling any problem.
Reliance on referenda, polls, or ad hoc inter-agency task forces to decide policy is neither good nor bad. It all depends on how one uses them. Some may hide behind public opinion. They may use it to cover up inept government policies. This merely proves that they have no idea what they should do. Many decisions require difficult and complex professional judgments. They may involve fiscal, security, and technical considerations, even risk evaluations. If the government fails to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the pros and cons, but instead rushes to consult opinion polls, it is not acting responsibly.
Take the Nuclear Power Plant Number 4 construction issue. This requires highly professional decision making. The government has billions of dollars invested. Should construction continue? The government must consider every aspect of the issue, including science, economics, and security On the one hand, the government boasts that it will arrive at a professional decision. On the other hand it swears it will abide by the results of a public referendum. This is obviously self-contradictory. Take the preservation of the "Queen's Head" rock formation. Some scholars have argued that the accelerated weathering of the Queen's Head was the result of considerable human impact. It was not entirely the result of natural factors. Today however, the Taipei Tourism Bureau wants to resort to the expediency of an opinion poll to determine what it should do. As one can imagine, no matter what result the poll yields people will not be persuaded.
This is true also for freeway metering on a pay per kilometer basis. In order to ensure a smooth transition, the government is offering a free milage grace period. This is a necessary concession. But it does not need to be permanent. Otherwise, satisfying short distance freeway users will invite resentment among long distance freeway users. The government can never please everyone. These "ad hoc task forces" reflect long accumulated problems, and the failure to address problems at their source -- policy implementation. Here a task force. There a task force. This merely shows that the government may have authority, but it lacks ability. Problems worsen and elude solution .
The government must listen to the public. But it must not blindly rely on public opinion. Public opinion is an indicator of society's sentiments. The government must respect it. But that does not mean allowing it to run amok. Public opinion is often fragmented. The government must exercise professionalism and impartiality in its decision making. It must sell the public. It must lead the public. It must not become an example of the blind leading the blind.
2013.12.30 03:49 am