Six Principles for the Policymaker
Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash

Six Principles for the Policymaker

Christopher Ashley Ford
Christopher Ashley Ford

Having left a senior US Government position as a diplomat some months ago, I had the occasion the other day to discuss the advice that I would give to future policymakers, or to those who advise them. It was a fair question, but oddly not one that I could recall having been asked before (though I did say some relevant things in a recent paper I wrote on the future of principled conservatism in US foreign policy). Accordingly, as food for thought, here are six principles I try to keep in mind when engaging with the policy process.

1. Ensure input integrity

The first—and most important—principle is to ensure what I call “input integrity.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “Get your facts straight.” It’s certainly possible to stumble upon good policy choices by luck (the proverbial broken analog clock, for instance, is right twice a day). However, without more to rely upon than that, the relationship between policy choices and policy outcomes will most likely follow the adage of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Accordingly, it’s critical to ensure the quality of input by providing as much solid information and analysis as possible, and by considering diverse perspectives and voices in the decision-making process. This will help produce conclusions better matched to the circumstances you face and better able to withstand the scrutiny of colleagues. Decision-makers need to be as well informed as possible throughout the decision-making process, and remain as open as possible to differing views, framings, or analyses. This makes clarity and honesty imperative.

Forgive the classical allusion, but as Plutarch once put it, a true friend is not a flatterer, but someone who—precisely due to the sincerity of friendship—speaks hard truths when they need to be heard. Sound policymaking requires candid advice informed by as much solid information, data, and analysis as possible, even—or indeed especially—when that advice challenges expectations or preconceptions. This also applies when interrogating the assumptions that underlie proposed courses of action, including about the availability and likelihood of desired end-states, and the causal linkages that proposals often presuppose between policy inputs and outcomes.

In the interests of improving the integrity of the deliberative process, it can also be useful to harbor a degree of constructive skepticism in the face of policy enthusiasms. This can be a touchy subject, since passion and commitment to a particular agenda are invaluable drivers of the policy process—such passion often being the “engine” for engagement in trying to improve the world. Nevertheless, passion and enthusiasm can sometimes work at cross-purposes to the critical tasks of ensuring that decision-making is as well-informed as possible, of questioning and testing assumptions, and of ensuring that diverse perspectives and data inputs are taken into account in decision-making.

After all, those certain they already know the transcendently “Right Answer” will be disinclined to waste time debating policy and considering complicating details or contrary views. But that course is risky, and doesn’t serve the interests of good policymaking because people are fallible and because enthusiasm about one’s own rectitude can create blind spots, even for the best among us. As an old friend of mine likes to put it, “If you want it bad, you get it bad”—if you want something desperately enough, you’re more likely to make bad choices in its pursuit. Simply put, uncritical enthusiasm increases the likelihood of failure.

Even those convinced they already have the answer should still be willing to entertain contrary scenarios, consider heterodox views, interrogate their own assumptions, and remain open to inconvenient facts. There’s little downside to this, and a huge potential upside. (If you’re right, your position should easily survive such encounters, and indeed be strengthened by them. And if your initial approach is incorrect, openness and inquiry will let you improve it, and perhaps even forestall disaster.) Especially in an era of factually unmoored, enthusiasm-driven position-taking, a little constructive skepticism can be the policymaker’s best friend.

2. Fail “safe”

The idea of “failing safe” is related to the thought processes I’ve stressed above. It is important to consider what will happen if the underlying assumptions of a particular course of action prove to be incorrect, or if you encounter unexpected “off-design” scenarios. After all, not all paths “fail” equally “safely.” It may sometimes be wiser to adopt an approach that is not quite as effective in predicted scenarios if, in return for this sub-optimization, it would work much better in the face of unexpected ones. There may be a balance to be struck here.

For instance, it is possible to open a can of beans with a screwdriver, as well as to do a good many other things, if perhaps not always elegantly. But an electric can opener cannot turn a screw. Opening cans is vastly easier with the opener, but unless I’m sure I’ll only ever encounter unopened cans—and that the electricity will never go out—there’s something to be said for picking a screwdriver, assuming I have to choose between the two.

This can sometimes be hard for policymakers to stomach (or to defend to others, especially in a political context) because it necessarily involves choosing not to adopt the course of action they really think would work best in the circumstances they’re most likely to face. But I do think it’s important to add “alternative scenarios” to the mix, for the world does seem to love throwing us curve balls.

Scenario planning concepts should encourage us to consider more flexible, “Swiss Army Knife”-type policy choices rather than always betting on highly specialized, single-use tools that may work extremely well under optimal circumstances but could fail catastrophically in unpredicted situations.

3. Clarity in trade-offs

Policymakers should be honest with themselves (and others) about strategic trade-offs between competing equities. Policymaking is, after all, frequently not just about finding the best answer to the problem at hand, but also about making decisions in an environment of finite resources: limits on available funding, manpower, bureaucratic attention, political capital, and time. In such contexts, full-bore pursuit of one important objective necessarily often means cutting back on efforts to achieve another, or accepting heightened risk in de-emphasized areas. Where resources are limited, each policy prioritization you make may need to be “paid for” somewhere else.

There is often no way around such challenges, but policymakers tend to hate making this kind of choice, or sometimes even admitting that they need to—or that they have done so. These are inherently difficult choices that can be politically challenging to make and defend, because they involve adjudicating and potentially compromising between objectives, all of which may be very important. Such choices, however, are often inescapable, and we do the integrity of the policy process a disservice if we pretend we aren’t making them.

4. Seek sustainability

Policymakers should ensure that the country can stay on course over time where it needs to do so. This sustainability question may not be so relevant when leaders have to respond to a “one-off” crisis. But in broader questions of setting national policy and running large, path-dependent bureaucracies, policies need to be sustainable in the long-term.

Especially in an era of polarized politics, democratic governments are vulnerable to significant policy oscillations as different political teams succeed each other. Sometimes that’s a strength, because it increases the frequency at which folks re-examine past policy choices for faulty assumptions or unintentional bad outcomes. But inconstancy can be problematic in areas where we need a sustained application of attention and focus—such as in grand strategy against near-peer competitors who think in terms of decades rather than just, say, about the end of the next fiscal year or the next election.

From those kinds of challenges, there’s something to be said for deliberately choosing a good but not maximally beneficial course of action if such compromise gets you “buy-in” from other stakeholders in ways that will ensure that the policy remains a consistent priority over time. Doing this can be hard, for in a time like ours, such compromise may be depicted as “betrayal.” But insisting upon the “perfect” answer to a long-term problem at the cost of having it be only a temporary one—a choice that is soon reversed by one’s successor—isn’t sound policymaking. It is preening at the expense of policy, and it ultimately undermines one’s cause.

Another aspect of sustainability relates to public discourse. Especially in a democracy, no policy will be genuinely sustainable over time unless it is clearly explained and defended to all relevant stakeholders in public. Open, honest, and clear articulation of policy choices and the reasoning behind them is essential to making them stick. This is so, not just because it helps ensure stakeholder “buy-in,” but also because it puts reasons and arguments permanently “on the record” as a benchmark against which later policymakers will have to defend their own choices, and as a foundation upon which others may be able to build. In office, I’ve always tried to put as much clear policy explication and reasoning on the record as possible, and I very much appreciate this in others; it can help make us all smarter.

5. Revisit choices

It’s important to re-examine policy choices and the assumptions that underlie them periodically, in light of the best available information and analysis. Humans are fallible, and their choices are always made, to one degree or another, in an environment of ambiguous or incomplete information, sometimes under considerable stresses and time pressures. And even if they do actually get everything right the first time, the world is still not a static place—it can and does change. It’s therefore essential to build some kind of “revisit” process into decision-making in order periodically to reassesses the “fit” between policy prescriptions and the environment.

Ideally, such revisits will reassure us that we’re still on the right track. If not, they still give us a chance to make any necessary adjustments. After all, one doesn’t have to be a Keynesian to agree with the (perhaps apocryphal) quip usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes that when the facts change, one should be willing to change one’s mind. That may be easier said than done, but it’s important nonetheless.

6. Attend to values

Finally, it is important to keep one's eye on the overall course and direction of policy within a framework of clearly understood and articulated values. This isn’t so much about the policy process, I suppose, as it is about remembering fundamental points of overall policy direction. One’s “tactical” moves should always make sense within the overall “strategic” vision that broader societal and institutional values and choices help provide.

This takes the issue at hand to a level above the factual and analytic “input integrity” I discussed earlier. Facts and their analysis are critical to understanding the environment and devising ways to achieve desired outcomes. But they do not provide much of an answer to questions such as: What objectives does the community wish to pursue in the first place? How do we decide whether or not to prioritize one goal over another? How do we assess and execute trade-offs among stakeholder equities where outcomes cannot be fully optimized for everyone?

For these dilemmas, policymaking relies heavily upon dynamics of socio-political bargaining and other forms of (often contested) choice-making driven by values. Technocracy can help inform such decisions, and can almost always help make policy implementation more effective. But often, it can only do so within a higher-level framework of antecedent values and choices.

Policymakers should be mindful of the higher-level values framework within which they operate. A brigade commander might issue a general directive to “Take that hill!” but should empower his platoon leaders to improvise specific movements based upon their superior knowledge of the condition of their troops and the terrain immediately in front of each unit. Similarly, broader value-informed directional choices provide a sense of “commander’s intent” for the more detailed aspects of policy development and adoption. Such values provide our overall compass bearings, and we forget that sense of direction at our peril.


Christopher Ashley Ford

Christopher Ashley Ford is a former diplomat, Senate staffer, naval intelligence officer, and think tank scholar who works and writes on foreign and national security policy.