One of the biggest problems of public policy design is - it is not and cannot always be objective. We love to use the term evidence-based policy and argue passionately about the need for evidence in shaping solutions.
That may work in a utopia but not in real life. In the real world, the question of values become important and politics often play a bigger role in determining policy outcome.
Henceforth, policy design is something that must be problem-oriented, scientific, methodologically sound, and yet, paradoxically, value-oriented. This is a puzzle that every country faces, and none can deal with properly.
It is important to understand that in designing policy, the most important thing is identifying and defining the public policy problem.
We can "see" a problem but to make it 'policy worthy', we need to define it, narrow it down properly and understand its different aspects.
Otherwise, it is simply not possible to determine what the policy purpose should be, which goals we should emphasise on, which options we should consider and which policy instruments we should utilise. This is the most important first step in designing policy.
In policy studies, the term "wicked problem" is quite well-known. Wicked problems are not day to day regular problems and instead, they are multi-dimensional, challenge the status quo and may very well require solutions and analysis that are non-incremental, innovative, and multi-dimensional.
Wicked problems force the government to move away from "parallel processing" and jump into "serial processing" as it requires the adoption of a collaborative approach where the GOs and the NGOs need to work together.
Covid-19 crisis is probably the "wickedest" problem that we have faced in our lifetime and as such, it required a quick scanning of the environment and a quick definition of the problem which unfortunately did not happen in Bangladesh.
The thing is, most of the countries that went through the crisis managed to define the problem quite well even when they failed to respond properly.
The eventual denial often resulted in sound problem definition.
It is likely that countries like USA or Canada or even Italy defined the problem as "lack of preparedness" of the health sector and flattening the curve became an important policy option which was often utilized through tools like social distancing or lockdown.
Sweden and the UK (initially) defined the problem differently way and so did Belarus. The question, however, is- how did Bangladesh define the problem?
To be honest, we do not know.
There was that initial problem denial phase when both the religious and the political leaders agreed that we had nothing to worry about and we were more powerful than corona and that phase continued even after the country kept identifying corona patients.
The interesting thing is- in Bangladesh, we chose the option first and tried to fit the problem accordingly. We went for "long vacations" without making it clear why we were adopting it.
And we clearly failed to identify the policy problem properly as we decided that our problem was "failure to enforce lockdown". That is probably one of the most ridiculous things that we have done.
The thing is, as we failed to define the problem clearly, the government could not explain why they were focusing on lockdown, the citizens did not understand what was going on and even the business or the private sector did not get a clear signal from the government.
Furthermore, since it is the "wickedest" of the problems, it had/has different dimensions- the public health dimension focusing mostly on the health system's capacity to deal with the pandemic, the economic dimension emphasising on either supporting the poor or opening up the market, the social dimension reflecting citizen's lack of understanding or lack of trust and the administrative dimension focusing on the implementation of the policy solutions.
What we needed was comprehensive planning addressing all these dimensions - something that remained absent. Here is what we could have done instead.
Defining the problem
Most probably we could define the policy problem while focusing on two different issues- health system and economic vulnerability. From this perspective, probably the policy problem could be- "inadequate capacity of the health and economic system to support the most vulnerable ones".
The defining problem in this way would have allowed the government to go for a collaborative approach in finding solutions.
At the same time, it would have been made clear to everyone that the government would concentrate on building/ rebuilding the capacity of the health system while protecting the poor during their toughest time allowing the relevant actors to strategise accordingly.
Determining the purpose and the goal
The government initially had three options- eliminate the crisis (which is not possible), contain (the logical one that the government chose) and status-quo (not possible). It was important for the government to make clear that it was going for a containment strategy, i.e. its purpose is to contain it.
In other words, the government could have concentrated on solving the problem by building the capacity of the health system and to achieve that end, it could look for different options.
Unfortunately, the government failed to distinguish between means and ends encouraging many to think that "vacation" or lockdown is the end. Henceforth, the market got a wrong signal, panicked, forced the workers to come back and people decided to flee the city.
At the same time, goal-wise, the government could have made it clear that in solving the policy problem we needed to focus on three issues- first, we had to concentrate on efficiency and thus, making the health system efficient could become a top-priority; second, we had to emphasise on equity and could ensure that equitable support and distribution for all were ensured and third, initially, we needed to focus on security even at the expense of liberty and that is why ensuring effective enforcement of lockdown and social distancing should get priority. We did not choose the goals wisely.
Choosing the option
We did choose probably the right option but without consulting the health sector and system experts, without considering policy goals and without calculating the consequences.
As it turns out, we did not try to translate these options into policy actions properly and thus implemented them haphazardly. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, we chose the options as ends and not as means to end.
Choosing the instruments
Surprisingly, the government's performances are mixed in case of choosing and utilising the policy tools/ instruments.
Some of these tools like information sharing, exhortation were not introduced and applied properly, some did not work so far (e.g. treasure in terms of financial incentives), some had mixed results (using authority to make people stay at home) and other worked quite well (innovative solutions at the local level).
Again, this has happened not because of the success of the policy makers at the top (who often could not identify the right tool) but because of the commitment of the frontline-administrators. The thing is we need to learn quickly as the crisis is far from over. We need to go for a two-stage problem definition.
First of all, we need to identify and define short-term problems, i.e. the issues that need to be addressed within the shortest possible time and secondly, we need to consider how things will when and if the second wave arrives in winter.
We have to start thinking now, consult with the policy experts and health sector professionals, economist, sociologists and local government experts and based on that, define future problems, determine the purpose and goal, identify the target population, determine the options to choose from and start working on the policy instruments. We do not have much time.
Dr Asif M Shahan, is Associate Professor at Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka