Sunday, 20 June, 2021

Public Policies Fail To Deliver Results

Mukti Rijal

Nepal's public policy formulation process has been said to be poorly conceptualised and haphazardly designed and can therefore be said to be flawed. It is alleged that the policy formulation is not informed by relevant knowledge and evidences, supported by a through scrutiny of disciplinary experts, and legitimated by the constructive engagement of stakeholders and owned up by the wider mass of civil society. This fact has been pointed out not only by those who are closely following and critiquing the policy process but also by the stakeholders who are affected directly or indirectly by it. Furthermore, this fact is also widely admitted by politicians and bureaucrats who are at the helm to guide policy enactment and execution process in the country.

Policy instrument
Needless to say, public policy is generally understood by politicians, bureaucrats and others concerned in a restricted and limited sense of the term in our country. It is used to signify to the singular policy instrument and directive prepared and issued by the cabinet. These policy instruments can be declaratory, theme and sector based. Such category of policy instruments are defined, conceptualised and issued generally at the behest of the sector ministries as it is considered to be the exclusive mandate of the executive alone to formulate and issue such tools. Such policies are defined as soft laws from jurisprudential point of view and are therefore non-compelling and non-binding and on top of that least bothered to require implementation But this narrow meaning of policy as understood in our context has been obsolete, irrelevant and fails to capture the essence of the term. This understanding, therefore, cannot convey the real substance and meaning for which the word policy is comprehended in the wider democratic world.
In the democratic political milieu both in the Western and the Eastern worlds, public policy has been understood in the broader meaning and embraced in wider sense. Public policy is indeed a composite whole of legal and institutional framework. It comprises the whole gamut of the system of laws including the constitution, regulatory measures and the courses of action promulgated and implemented by government in fulfilling rights and securing justice for the people.
The meaning of public policy has thus been elaborate and comprehensive. Public policy should comprise both institutional arrangements like constitution, laws and governing measures but also the resource investments and mechanism put in place for their enforcement and realisation. It also involves building of policy delivery system in which specific process and mechanisms are designed and pursued in reaching to particular ends and securing outcomes.
I would like to take cues from Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen who has explained it further. In his book ‘Idea of Justice’, Amartya Sen emphasises the ultimate objective of public policy (Niti) which, according to him, is fulfilling human rights and securing justice (Nyaya) for the wider mass of the people. According to Sen, public policy should not be conceptualised in terms of institutional and organisational arrangements alone. It should be so designed as to ensure that needs, aspirations and demands of the people for rights and justice are effectively addressed and realised.
The basic argument in favor of realisation and execution of the public policy (Niti) is that laws, policies, institutions and rules are very important in setting the course of justice. But it is found that there is a huge gap between formalism and realism. To illustrate it further, actuality in terms of delivery may be different from what is being intended and couched in the letters of constitution, laws and policies. The constitution, laws and guidelines, of course, constitute the vital set of policies (Nitis) to lay out the norms and mechanism for organisational propriety and behavioural correctness. But the roles and performance of institutions, rules, and organisations have to be assessed not only in terms of rational institutionalism. They should be evaluated in inclusive and outcome-oriented perspective of rights and justice (Nyaya).
This is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges and takes shape which may be quite opposite to the intents and objects of the institutions, rules and policies. The realisation-focused perspective of the policy (Niti) makes it necessary to see the importance of not only of evidence based, democratic and participatory methodology of its formulation but also evaluate the policy whether intended goals, intents and purposes are achieved or not. This can go a long way to ensure realization of the goals, intents and purposes of policies (Niti) to deliver wellbeing (Nyaya) to the people.

Fundamental rights
We have several laws and policies in the statute book. Moreover, the Constitution of Nepal has guaranteed fundamental rights to education, health and many more economic, social and cultural rights of the citizens. The parliament has also enacted relevant laws to enforce these rights. Moreover, the state has committed to achieve sustainable development goals, too. But these policies and commitments have been in paper only. In reality, we face manifestations of severe injustices and denial of rights to the people. There has been the continuing lack of entitlement to basic medical attention and the comprehensive absence of opportunities for basic schooling for a significant proportion of the population. We can take the appalling cases of COVID-19 surge that has taken heavy toll of life of the people. The constitutional commitments and policies (Niti) have not worked effectively for want of attention to the effective designing of delivery process and mechanism for their realisation (Nyaya).
This gap between formal laws and policies (Niti) and their realisation in terms of delivery of justice (Nyaya) constitutes a serious challenge to the integrity and legitimacy of federal governance system in Nepal. This also calls for a serious introspection into the priority setting of the institutions like Policy Research Institute (PRI), too. This author believes that PRI should, besides its engagement in evidence-based policy support to the government, give attention to evaluate why our public policies and institutions (Niti) fail to perform, deliver and secure justice (Nyaya) to the people.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.)